Flag Explained

For other uses see Flag (disambiguation).

A flag is a piece of cloth, often flown from a pole or mast, generally used symbolically for signaling or identification. The term flag is also used to refer to the graphic design employed by a flag, or to its depiction in another medium.

The first flags were used to assist military coordination on battlefields, and flags have since evolved into a general tool for rudimentary signaling and identification, it was especially used in environments where communication is similarly challenging (such as the maritime environment where semaphore is used). National flags are potent patriotic symbols with varied wide-ranging interpretations, often including strong military associations due to their original and ongoing military uses. Flags are also used in messaging, advertising, or for other decorative purposes. The study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum meaning flag or banner.


The usage of flags spread from India and China, where they were almost certainly invented,[1] to neighboring Burma, Siam, and southeastern Asia.[1]

The Persians used Drafsch e Kavian as the flag, at the time of Achaemenian dynasty at 550–330 B.C. Afterwards it was used in different look by the late Sassanid era (224-651). It was also representative of the Sassanid state - Ērānshāhr, the "Kingdom of Iran" - and may so be considered to have been the first "national flag" of Iran.

Originally, the standards of the Roman legions were not flags, but symbols such as the eagle of Augustus Caesar's Xth legion; this graphic of the eagle would be placed on a staff for the standard-bearer to hold up during battle. But a military unit from Dacia had for a standard a dragon with a flexible tail which would move in the wind; the legions copied this, and eventually all the legions had physically flexible standards–the modern-day flag.

During the Middle Ages, flags were used for a variety of purposes including: identification of members of nobility, guilds, cities, religious worship, and for use during battles. In battle, flags were used by military companies for identification on the field and relaying of strategic instructions. Though not always, flags could identify individual leaders: in Europe, monarchs and knights; in Japan, the samurai; in China, the generals under the imperial army; and in Mexico, the Aztec alliances.

From the time of Christopher Columbus onwards, it has been customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality;[2] these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime flags of today. Flags also became the preferred means of communications at sea, resulting in various systems of flag signals; see, International maritime signal flags.

As European knights were replaced by centralized armies, flags became the means to identify not just nationalities but also individual military units. Flags became objects to be captured or defended. Eventually these flags posed too much of a practical danger to those carrying them, and by World War I these were withdrawn from the battlefields, and have since been used only at ceremonial occasions.

National flags

See main article: National flag. One of the most popular uses of a flag is to symbolize a nation or country. Some national flags have been particularly inspirational to other nations, countries, or subnational entities in the design of their own flags. Some prominent examples include:

National flag designs are often used to signify nationality in other forms, such as flag patches.

Civil flags

See main article: Civil flag. A civil flag is a version of the national flag that is flown by civilians on non-government installations or craft. The use of civil flags was more common in the past, in order to denote buildings or ships that were not manned by the military. In some countries the civil flag is the same as the war flag or state flag, but without the coat of arms, such as in the case of Spain, and in others it's an alteration of the war flag.

War flags

See main article: War flag.

Several countries (including the United Kingdom and the former Nazi Germany) have had unique flags flown by their armed forces, rather than the national flag.

Other countries' armed forces (such as those of the United States or Switzerland) use their standard national flag. The Philippines' armed forces may use their standard national flag, but during times of war the flag is turned upside down - the only known case where an upside down national flag signifies a state of war (and not merely distress.) These are also considered war flags, though the terminology only applies to the flag's military usage.

Large versions of the war flag flown on the warships of countries' navies are known as battle ensigns. In war waving a white flag indicates surrender.

International flags

Among international flags are the Flag of the United Nations, the Olympic flag and the World Flag.

Flags at sea

See main article: Maritime flag. Flags are particularly important at sea, where they can mean the difference between life and death, and consequently where the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced. A national flag flown at sea is known as an ensign. A courteous, peaceable merchant ship or yacht customarily flies its ensign (in the usual ensign position), together with the flag of whatever nation it is currently visiting at the mast (known as a courtesy flag). To fly one's ensign alone in foreign waters, a foreign port or in the face of a foreign warship traditionally indicates a willingness to fight, with cannon, for the right to do so. As of 2009, this custom is still taken seriously by many naval and port authorities and is readily enforced in many parts of the world by boarding, confiscation and other civil penalties.

In some countries yacht ensigns are different from merchant ensigns in order to signal that the yacht is not carrying cargo that requires a customs declaration. Carrying commercial cargo on a boat with a yacht ensign is deemed to be smuggling in many jurisdictions.

There is a system of international maritime signal flags for numerals and letters of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has a specific meaning when flown individually.

As well, semaphore flags can be used to communicate on an ad hoc basis from ship to ship over short distances.

Shape and design

See main article: Gallery of flags by design. Flags are usually rectangular in shape (often in the ratio 2:3, 1:2, or 3:5), but may be of any shape or size that is practical for flying, including square, triangular, or swallow tailed. A more unusual flag shape is that of the flag of Nepal, which is in the shape of two stacked triangles.

Many flags are dyed through and through to be inexpensive to manufacture, such that the reverse side is the mirror image of the obverse (front) side. This presents two possibilities:

  1. If the design is symmetrical in an axis parallel to the flag pole, obverse and reverse will be identical despite the mirror-reversal e.g. flag of India
  2. If not, the obverse and reverse will present two variants of the same design, one with the hoist on the left (usually considered the obverse side, see flag illustrations), the other with the hoist on the right (usually considered the reverse side of the flag). This is very common and usually not disturbing if there is no text in the design. See also US reverse side flag.

Some complex flag designs are not intended for through and through implementation, requiring separate obverse and reverse sides if made correctly. In these cases there is a design element (usually text) which is not symmetric and should be read in the same direction, regardless of whether the hoist is to the viewer's left or right. These cases can be divided into two types:

  1. The same (asymmetric) design may be duplicated on both sides. Such flags can be manufactured by creating two identical through and through flags and then sewing them back to back, though this can affect the resulting combination's responsiveness to the wind. Depictions of such flags may be marked with the symbol, indicating the reverse is congruent to (rather than a mirror image of) the obverse.
  2. Rarely, the reverse design may differ, in whole or in part, from that of the obverse. Examples are the national flag of Paraguay, the flag of the U.S. state of Oregon, and the historical national flag of the Soviet Union. Depictions of such flags may be marked with the symbol . See: Flags whose reverse differs from the obverse.

Common designs on flags include crosses, stripes, and divisions of the surface, or field, into bands or quarters — patterns and principles mainly derived from heraldry. A heraldic coat of arms may also be flown as a banner of arms, as is done on both the state flag of Maryland and the flag of Kiribati.

The flag of Libya, which consists of a rectangular field of green, is the only national flag using a single color and no design or insignia.

Color specification

Colors are normally described with common names eg red, but in some cases (eg Canada) the colors are specified using the Pantone color matching system.

Largest flags

The largest flag, as adjudicated by Guinness World Records, is an 18847abbr=onNaNabbr=on flag of Israel made by Filipina Grace Galindez-Gupana and unfurled at Masada Airfield in November 2007.[3] [4] This flag plus 3 other gigantic national flags and 180 smaller flags of other countries were later sewn together by Gupana's multinational team to form the world's largest banner, covering an area of 54451m2.[5]

The largest flag regularly hoisted in the world is the Brazilian national flag flown in the Square of the Three Powers in Brasilia, Brazilian capital. This flag weights about 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) and has 7,000 square meters (70×100 m = 230×330 feet) and has never come down since the capital inauguration.

Other large flags, in excess of that have been constructed, appear in the following list.

m2sq ft
IsraelMasada, Israel66000m2[6] [7]
PalestineDamascus, Syria27000m2[8] [9]
PhilippinesBaguio, Philippines16560m2[10]
United StatesLong Beach, California, USA[13] 12012m2
Central Tibetan AdministrationCalais, France11250m2
APEC (largest flag ever flown)Hanoi, Vietnam10000-2NaN-2

Religious Flags

Flags can play many different roles in religion. In Buddhism, prayer flags are used, usually in sets of five differently colored flags. Many national flags and other flags include religious symbols such as the cross, the crescent, or a reference to a patron saint. Flags are also adopted by religious groups and flags such as the Jain flag and the Christian flag are used to represent a whole religion.

See also: Religion in national symbols.

Linguistic flags

As languages rarely have a flag designed to represent them[14], it is a common practice, though unofficial, to use national flags to identify them. Examples of this use include:

Though this can be done in an uncontroversial manner in some cases, this can easily lead to some problems for certain languages:

In this second case, common solutions include symbolising these languages by:

Thus, on the Internet, it is most common to see the English language associated to the flag of the United Kingdom, but sometimes to the flag of England, the flag of the United States or a US-UK mixed flag, usually divided diagonally.

In sports

Because of their ease of signaling and identification, flags are often used in sports.

See main article: racing flags.

Swimming flags

In Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, and the United Kingdom a pair of red/yellow flags is used to mark the limits of the bathing area on a beach, usually guarded by surf lifesavers. If the beach is closed, the poles of the flags are crossed. The flags are colored with a red triangle and a yellow triangle making a rectangular flag, or a red rectangle over a yellow rectangle. On many Australian beaches there is a slight variation with beach condition signaling. A red flag signifies a closed beach (or, in the UK, some other danger), yellow signifies strong current or difficult swimming conditions, and green represents a beach safe for general swimming. In Ireland, a red and yellow flag indicates that it is safe to swim; a red flag that it is unsafe; and no flag indicates that there are no lifeguards on duty. Blue flags may also be used away from the yellow-red lifesaver area to designate a zone for surfboarding and other small, non-motorised watercraft.

Reasons for closing the beach include:

A surf flag exists, divided into four quadrants. The top left and bottom right quadrants are black, and the remaining area is white.

Signal flag "India" (a black circle on a yellow square) is frequently used to denote a "blackball" zone where surfboards cannot be used but other water activities are permitted.

Railway flags

Railways use a number of colored flags. When used as wayside signals they usually use the following meanings (exact meanings are set by the individual railroad company):

At night, the flags are replaced with lanterns showing the same colors.

Flags displayed on the front of a moving locomotive are an acceptable replacement for classification lights and usually have the following meanings (exact meanings are set by the individual railroad company):

Additionally, a railroad brakeman will typically carry a red flag to make his or her hand signals more visible to the engineer. Railway signals are a development of railway flags.[15]

In politics

Social and political movements have adopted flags, to increase their visibility and as a unifying symbol.

The socialist movement uses red flags to represent their cause. The anarchism movement has a variety of different flags, but the primary flag associated with them is the black flag. In the 1970s, the rainbow flag was adopted as a symbol of the LGBT social movements. Bisexual and transgender pride flags were later designed, in an attempt to emulate the rainbow flag's success. Some of these political flags have become national flags; such as the red flag of the Soviet Union and national socialist banners for Nazi Germany.


A flagpole, flagstaff, or staff can be a simple support made of wood or metal. If it is taller than can be easily reached to raise the flag, a cord is used, looping around a pulley at the top of the pole with the ends tied at the bottom. The flag is fixed to one lower end of the cord, and is then raised by pulling on the other end. The cord is then tightened and tied to the pole at the bottom. The pole is usually topped by a flat plate called a "truck" (originally meant to keep a wooden pole from splitting) or by a ball or a finial in a more complex shape.

Very high flagpoles may require more complex support structures than a simple pole, such as guy wires, or need be built as a mast. The highest flagpole in the world, at 160 metres (525 ft), is that at Gijeong-dong in North Korea, the flag weighing about 270 kilograms (600 pounds) when dry.[16]

Since 2008 with 133m (436ft) the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world is the Ashgabat Flagpole in Turkmenistan, beating the formerly record holding Aqaba Flagpole in Jordan (size: 132 m; 433 ft).[17] It will however be outrivaled by the National Flag Square in Azerbaijan, which is currently under construction and will reach a height of 162m (531ft).[18] The Raghadan Flagpole in Amman is currently the third tallest free-standing flagpole in the world. It reaches a height of 126 meters (410 ft) and hoists a flag that measures 60 by 40 meters (200 by 130 feet); it is illuminated at night and can be seen from 25 km (16 miles) away.

The world's biggest regularly hoisted flag, however, is the Brazilian national flag flown in the Square of the Three Powers in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. This flag weighs about 600 kilograms (1300 pounds) when dry and measures 70×100 metres (230x330 feet). It can be seen from all parts of Brasilia and its flagpole is the tallest structure in the city.


Flagpoles can be designed in one piece with a taper (typically a cone taper or a Greek entasis taper),[19] or be made from multiple pieces to make them able to expand. In the United States, ANSI/NAAMM guide specification FP-1001-97 covers the engineering design of metal flagpoles to ensure safety.

Flags and Communication

Semaphore is a form of communication that utilizes flags. The signalling is performed by an individual using two flags (or lighted wands), the positions of the flags indicating a symbol. The person who holds the flags is known as the signalman. This form of communication is primarily used by naval signallers. This technique of signalling was adopted in the early 1800s and is still used in various forms today.


See also

Lists and galleries of flags
Notable flag-related topics

External links

Notes and References

  1. flag. (2008). Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. Articles 90-94 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
  3. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/adjudications/071125_largest_flag.aspx Guinness World Records
  4. http://www.sunstar.com.ph/static/net/2008/01/25/pinay.honored.for.making.world.s.largest.flag.banner.(10.45.a.m.).html Sunnex news article
  5. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/adjudications/071223_largest_banner_unfurled.aspx Guinness World Records
  6. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3471300,00.html World's largest flag
  7. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/927830.html Giant Israeli flag breaks world record for largest in world
  8. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24792325/displaymode/1176/ Palestinian largest flag
  9. http://www.palestinianflag.org/emain/index.php A larger flag for a more precious home land
  10. http://www.gmanews.tv/story/100831/Largest-Philippine-flag-unfurled-in-Baguio gmanews.tv, Largest Philippine flag unfurled in Baguio
  11. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4094423.stm - Retrieved July 17, 2007
  12. http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/xf-supe.html - Retrieved July 17, 2007
  13. http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/CALONflag.html - Retrieved July 17, 2007
  14. http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/flags.html Why you should not use a flag as a symbol of language
  15. Web site: Early Railway Signals. 2007-10-07. Calvert. J.B.. 2004-07-25. University of Denver.
  16. Web site: Korea's DMZ: Scariest place on Earth. February 20, 2002. CNN.
  17. Web site: Flag of Turkmenistan. July 03, 2008. Official Homepage of the Republic of Turkmenistan.
  18. Web site: Wer baut den hoechsten Fahnenmast. September 09, 2008. Der Spiegel.
  19. Web site: http://web.archive.org/web/20050228014231/http://lingoinc.com/tapers.htm. 2005-02-28. Cone Tapered vs. Venetian Entasis Tapered. Lingo Flagpoles Inc.