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A flag is a piece of cloth flown from a pole or mast, usually intended for signaling or identification. Flags were initially created for signalling (as in semaphore), and for the identification of those who displayed them, and are still used for that purpose today. Flags are also used in messaging or advertising, or for decorative purposes, though at this less formal end the distinction between a flag and a simple cloth banner is blurred. Generally, a piece of cloth is a flag if it is flown like a flag, with one side attached, though many flags are recognisable if displayed in other forms.

The study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum meaning flag or banner.

Table of contents
1 History of Flags
2 National flags
3 Flags at sea
4 Flag Design
5 The Use of Flags in Sports
6 Alternate meanings for "flag"
7 Related topics
8 Bibliography
9 External Links

History of Flags

The first flag-like implement to be used by humans was the vexilloid, an emblem or small sculpture on a pole, by the Egyptians, probably prior to 1000 B.C.E. They were also developed independently by Assyrians in about 750 B.C.E., and by the Celts of Western Europe. They could be made out of wood or metal, and were sometimes adorned with ribbons or bits of fabric as decoration.

Over time, people made the realization that the adornments were the more visible elements of a vexilloid. This was hastened by the development of sea travel, which called for a means of unambiguous identification over a great distance. Simple, brightly-colored designs which moved with the wind caught the eye best. Today, flags continue to be used to signal between ships or from ship to harbor. An example is an entirely yellow flag, which means that the ship's crew is quarantined for an infectious disease.

The use of flags to signal military orders or to rally troops continued until the late 19th century. Each military unit often had a unique unit flag which was often decorated with ribbons indicating battle honors, and it was considered a great honor to capture the enemies flag and a great shame to lose one's own. The practice of carrying flags into battle ended in the late 19th century when rifle fire became accurate enough to make carrying a flag suicidal.

Another use of flags is in weather announcements. Ports and ships often fly flags indicating wind conditions at sea. A red flag with a black center square indicates a gale while two such flags indicate a hurricane. Beaches often post red, yellow or green flags to indicate safe or unsafe surf or ice conditions.

Especially before radio, ships at sea could send messages by sending letters flags up, spelling out words which could be read by the different colors and designs of each flag.

The full development of heraldry in about 1200 C.E. also brought sophistication to the development and design of flags. The oldest national flag continually in use is the aforementioned Dannebrog, which dates legendarily from 1219.

National flags

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:

Flags of Non-national entities

Flags may also be adopted by:

In short, any entity seeking to establish an identity may do so by the use of a flag.

Flags at sea

Main article: Maritime flags

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 water, 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. This custom is still (2004) taken quite 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 smuggling in many jurisdictions.

There is a system of International maritime signal flags for each numeral and letter of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has an additional meaning when flown individually.

Flag Design

See also Flag terminology.

Flags are usually rectangular in shape, but may be of any shape or size that is practical for flying. Named shapes include pennant (and double pennant), swallowtail, triangular or swallowtail burgee, gonfanon and oriflamme. 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. An example is the U.S. state of Maryland, or the Republic of Kiribati. Writing is common on some flags - for example, state flags of the United States, or revolutionary flags of the Soviet Union - however, the practice is generally deprecated, because the writing is hard to read on the reverse of the flag, and sewing the same design on both sides often makes the flag too heavy to fly properly.

Unusual flag designs include the non-rectangular national flag of Nepal (vaguely in the shape of two stacked triangles) and the square flag of Switzerland. Also unusual are flags with a differing design on either side, as demonstrated by the national flag of Paraguay and state flag of Oregon in the U.S.

The Use of Flags in Sports

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

Alternate meanings for "flag"

Related topics


External Links