flag, common name for several plants belonging to the families Iridaceae and Araceae. See iris; arum.
flag, piece of cloth, usually bunting or similar light material, plain, colored, or bearing a device, varying in size and shape, but often oblong or square, used as an ensign, standard, or signal or for display and decorative purposes, and generally attached at one edge to a staff or to a halyard by which it may be hoisted. The part of the flag attached to the staff or halyard is the hoist; the portion from the attached part to the free end is the fly; the top quarter of the flag next to the staff is the canton.

The U.S. Flag

Origin and Design

In the British colonies of North America before the Revolution, each of the 13 colonies had its flag. On Jan. 2, 1776, the first flag of the United States was raised at Cambridge, Mass., by George Washington. Known as the Grand Union flag, it consisted of 13 stripes, alternate red and white, with a blue canton bearing the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. Congress, on June 14, 1777, enacted a resolution "that the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." The story of Betsy Ross and the first flag is now somewhat discredited; official records have not confirmed that she was responsible for the design and making of the first flag.

On Jan. 13, 1794, Vermont and Kentucky having been admitted to the Union, Congress added a stripe and a star for each state. Congress in 1818 enacted that the 13 stripes, denoting the 13 original colonies, be restored and a star added to the blue canton for each state after its admission to the Union. All of the states and territories of the United States also have their own flags.

Rules for Display

In 1942 a law was passed by the U.S. Congress establishing specific rules for the display of the U.S. flag by civilians or groups previously not subject to U.S. governmental regulations. The intent of the law was to ensure that the U.S. flag be given a position of honor. In a procession the U.S. flag is carried on the military right of the column; in procession with other flags it is carried in front; with another flag on a wall, both flags with staffs, the U.S. flag is to the right with the U.S. flagstaff in front of the other; with other flags on the same halyard, the U.S. flag is on top, although an exception is made when the church pennant of the services is flown from the same staff; with two or more flags in line, the U.S. flag is at right; with a group of other flags on display where the bottoms of the staffs touch in fanlike fashion, the U.S. flag is displayed in the center. Although the U.S. flag is usually displayed from sunrise to sunset, through law or presidential proclamation it is flown both day and night at the following patriotic sites: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historical Shrine, Md.; Flag House Square, Baltimore, Md.; United States Marine Corps (Iwo Jima) Memorial, Va.; and Battle Green, Lexington, Mass.

Signaling and Communication

The International Code flags and pennants enable mariners to communicate regardless of differences of language. In the armies and navies of the various nations of the world, flags are used for signaling. The white flag is used universally for truce; the black in early times was a symbol for piracy; the red symbolizes mutiny or revolution; the yellow is a sign of infectious diseases. Shipping lines have their own flags. Striking a flag signifies surrender, and the flag of a victor is hoisted above that of the vanquished. A flag flown at half-mast is the symbol of mourning. The inverted national ensign is a signal of distress.

Historical Development of Flags

Symbolical standards were used by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Jews. Biblical references to standards, ensigns, and banners are numerous. Early flags usually had a religious significance. The Dannebrog of Denmark, a red ensign that is swallow-tailed and bears a white cross, is no doubt the oldest flag design still in use. In France the Cape de St. Martin, originally kept in Marmoutier abbey, was borne upon the standards of the early kings, but this was succeeded by the oriflamme, the ancient banner of the abbey of St. Denis. The oriflamme was later replaced by the Bourbon white flag sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis, which in turn was succeeded by the tricolor at the time of the Revolution. William the Conqueror received his banner from the pope, and the ensign of Great Britain, the Union Jack (or Union Flag), is formed by the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, the national saints, respectively, of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In medieval times there were numerous flags in use—banners, banderoles, gonfalons, gonfanons, pennons, pennoncells, standards, streamers, and guidons. The banner, usually quadrangular in shape, was a battle flag bearing the arms of the person entitled to carry it. The banderole was smaller in size than the banner. The gonfalon and the gonfanon, also battle flags, were hung from a crosspiece attached to a staff or spear. The pennon was a long triangular flag, generally swallow-tailed, used as a knight bachelor's ensign. The pennoncell was a small pennon used for ceremonial purposes. The standard, used by nobles on ceremonial occasions, was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the free end and richly decorated. The royal standard of today is derived from the medieval banner; it bears the royal arms and is smaller than the national flag, or ensign. The streamer was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the fly, and generally carried at the masthead of a vessel. It has been replaced by the present-day pennant (or pendant, as it was earlier called and is still called in the British navy). The guidon was carried by cavalry; today it is used by the U.S. army for practically all units in dress parade and as a distinguishing flag.


See G. Campbell and I. O. Evans, The Book of Flags (5th ed. 1965); M. Talocci, Guide to the Flags of the World (1982).

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, This 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, to neighboring Burma, Siam, and southeastern Asia.

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 mainly during battles to identify individual leaders: in Europe, the 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; 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

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

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 is an alteration of the war flag.

War flags

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 and the Olympic flag.

Flags at sea

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 2006, 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

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.

Largest flags

The largest flag, as adjudicated by Guinness World Records, is an flag of Israel made by Filipina Grace Galindez-Gupana and unfurled at Masada Airfield in November 2007. 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 .

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 had never went down since the capital inauguration.

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

Flag Location Area
m2 sq ft
Israel Masada, Israel
Palestine Damascus, Syria
Philippines Baguio, Philippines
Bahrain Bahrain
Pakistan Pakistan
United States ("Superflag") Long Beach, California, USA
Central Tibetan Administration Calais, France
APEC (largest flag ever flown) Hanoi, Vietnam

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, it is a common practice, though unofficial, to use national flags to identify them. Examples of this use include:

  • representing language skills of an individual, like a staff member of a company
  • displaying available languages on a multilingual website or software.

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:

  • the flag of the country where the language originated
  • the flag of the country having the largest number of native speakers
  • a mixed flag of the both (when this is not the same)
  • the flag of the country most identified with that language in a specific region (Portuguese: Portuguese or Brazilian flag; English: UK)

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.

  • In Association football (soccer), linesmen carry small flags along the touch lines. They use the flags to indicate to the referee potential infringements of the laws, or who is entitled to possession of the ball that has gone out of the field of play, or, most famously, raising the flag to indicate an offside offence. Officials called touch judges use flags for similar purposes in both codes of rugby.
  • In American and Canadian football, referees use flags to indicate that a foul has been committed in game play. The phrase used for such an indication is flag on the play. The flag itself is a small, weighted handkerchief, tossed on the field at the approximate point of the infraction; the intent is usually to sort out the details after the current play from scrimmage has concluded. In American football, the flag is usually yellow; in Canadian football, it is usually red.
  • In yacht racing, flags are used to communicate information from the race committee boat to the racers. Different flags hoisted from the committee boat may communicate a false start, changes in the course, a canceled race, or other important information. Racing boats themselves may also use flags to symbolize a protest or distress. The flags are often part of the nautical alphabetic system of International maritime signal flags, in which 26 different flags designate the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet.
  • In auto and motorcycle racing, racing flags are used to communicate with drivers. Most famously, a checkered flag of black and white squares indicates the end of the race, and victory for the leader. A yellow flag is used to indicate caution requiring slow speed and a red flag requires racers to stop immediately. A black flag is used to indicate penalties.
  • In addition, fans of almost all sports wave flags in the stands to indicate their support for the participants. Many sports teams have their own flags, and, in individual sports, fans will indicate their support for a player by waving the flag of his or her home country.
  • Capture the flag is a popular children's sport.
  • In Gaelic football and Hurling a green flag is use to indicate a goal while a white flag is used to indicate a point
  • In Australian rules football, the goal umpire will wave two flags to indicate a goal and a single flag to indicate a point.
  • For safety, dive flags indicate the locations of underwater scuba divers.
  • In water sports such as Wakeboarding and Water-Skiing, an orange flag is held in between runs to indicate someone is in the water.

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:

  • no lifeguards in attendance
  • waves too strong
  • dangerous rip
  • sharks
  • tsunami
  • hurricane warning

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):

  • red = stop
  • yellow = proceed with care
  • green or white or blue = proceed.
  • a flag of any color waved vigorously means stop
  • A blue flag on the side of a locomotive means that it should not be moved because someone is working on it (or on the train attached to it). A blue flag on a track means that nothing on that track should be moved. The flag can only be removed by the person or group that placed it.

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):

  • white = extra (not on the timetable)
  • green = another section following
  • red = last section

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.

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 or flagstaff 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.

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: 132m; 433ft). It will however be outrivaled by the Baku Flagpole in Azerbaijan, which is currently under construction and will reach a height of 162m (531ft). 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), 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

A form of telecommunication that allow signals to be transmitted over a distance. The flags has been used throughout history as an indicator and communication mechanism.

Semaphore Flag Signally System is a form of communication that utilizes flags. The signaling is created by an individual using two flags of lighted wands. The individual positions the flags or wands within their hands. the person who holds the flags is known as the signalman. The signalman positions the flags into a direction equivalent to a particular character that the signalman is trying to create. For more on characters and flag positioning, please refer to Flag Semaphore. This form of communication is primarily used by the Naval Services. The technique of signaling was adopted in the early 1800s and is still used in various forms today. Morse code is another form of communication that relies upon signaling. Created by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Morse code is still widely used today.


  • William G. Crampton; The World of Flags; Rand McNally; ISBN 0-528-83720-6 (hardcover, 1994).
  • Ultimate Pocket Flags of the World; Dorling Kindersley; ISBN 0-7894-2085-6; (1st American edition, hardcover, 1996).

See also

Lists and galleries of flags

External links

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