Glossary of vexillology

Flag terminology is the nomenclature, or system of terms, used in vexillology, the study of flags, to describe precisely the parts, patterns, and other attributes of flags and their display.

Description of standard flag parts and terms

A coat of arms or simple heraldic symbol.
Any quarter of a flag, but commonly means the upper hoist (left) quarter, such as the field of stars in the flag of the United States or the Union Jack in the Australian Flag.
A figure or symbol appearing in the field of a flag.
A device often used as a charge on a flag. It may be heraldic in origin or modern, for example the maple leaf on the Canadian Flag.
The background of a flag; the color behind the charges.
A narrow edging or border, often in white or gold, on a flag to separate two other colors. For example the white and gold lines of the South African Flag.
The half or edge of a flag farthest away from the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the horizontal length of a flag.
The half or edge of a flag nearest to the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the vertical width of a flag.
The span of a flag along the side at right angles to the flagpole.
The span of a flag down the side parallel to the flagpole.

Basic patterns in flags

Flags often inherit traits seen in traditional European heraldry designs and as a result patterns often share names.

Name Illustration Example
Flag of Sri Lanka
Flag of Malaysia
Flag of Panama
Greek cross

(couped cross)

Flag of Switzerland
Symmetric cross
Flag of Georgia
Nordic cross
Flag of Denmark
Flag of Canada
Flag of Austria
Flag of Tanzania
Flag of the Philippines
Flag of South Africa
Flag of Scotland

Types of flag

Banderole or bannerol
A small flag or streamer carried on the lance of a knight; or a long narrow flag flying from the mast-head of a ship.
Generically, a synonym for a flag of any kind. In heraldry, a flag whose design is the same as the shield in a coat of arms, but usually in a square or rectangular shape; also known as a banner of arms.
A distinguishing flag of a recreational boating organisation.
Civil ensign, merchant flag or merchant ensign
A version of the national flag flown by civil ships to denote nationality.
Civil flag
A version of the national flag flown by civilians on non-government installations or craft.
Colour or color
The flag of a military unit.
Courtesy flag or courtesy ensign
A flag flown by a visiting ship in foreign waters as a token of respect.
The flag of a ship or military unit. May also be used generically as a synonym for a flag of any kind.
A small flag used by the French military.
Gonfalon, gonfanon or gonfalone
A type of heraldic flag suspended from a crossbar.
A small flag borne by a military unit. In Scots heraldry, a smaller version of the Standard.
Pennon or pennant
A flag larger at the hoist than at the fly.
Pipe banner
A decorative flag for the Scottish Highland bagpipes.
Prayer flag
A type of flag found strung along mountain ridges and peaks in the Himalayas, used to bless the surrounding countryside.
Rank flag or distinguishing flag
The flag flown by a superior naval officer on his flagship or headquarters.
Signal flag
A flag or pennant used to send signals.
In heraldry, a long tapering flag bearing heraldic badges and the owner's motto. The term may also refer to a military colour carried by cavalry units; or to a royal standard, a flag used by a monarch or members of a royal family.
State flag or government flag
A variant of a national flag designated or restricted to use by a country's government or its agencies.
A flag-like object, used in a similar symbolic manner to a flag, but that differs from a conventional flag in some way.
A flag-like object, suspended from a horizontal crossbar, used as a military standard in the Ancient Roman army.
War flag, military flag or battle flag
A variant of a national flag for use by a country's military forces when on land.
A conical textile tube used to indicate the direction and strength of the wind.

Techniques in flag display

Flying the flag upside-down,[1] or tying it into a wheft.[2]
A style of flag display where the flag is flown at least the width of the flag between the top of the flag and the top of the pole.
The act or function of raising a flag, as on a rope.
The act or function of taking down a flag, as on a rope.


Flag illustrations generally depict flags flying from the observer's point of view from left to right, the view known as the obverse (or "front"); the other side is the reverse (or "back"). There are some exceptions, notably some Islamic flags inscribed in Arabic, for which the obverse is defined as the side with the hoist to the observer's right.

Flag identification symbols

A vexillological symbol is used by vexillologists to indicate certain characteristics of national flags, such as where they are used, who uses them, and what they look like. The set of symbols described in this article are known as international flag identification symbols, which were devised by Whitney Smith.

National flag variants by use

Some countries use a single flag design to serve as the national flag in all contexts of use; others use multiple flags that serve as the national flag, depending on context (i.e., who is flying the national flag and where). The six basic contexts of use (and potential variants of a national flag) are:

Civil flag – Flown by citizens on land.
State flag – Flown on public buildings.
War flag – Flown on military buildings.
Civil ensign – Flown on private vessels (fishing craft, cruise ships, yachts, etc.).
State ensign – Flown on unarmed government vessels.
Naval ensign – Flown on warships.

In practice, a single design may be associated with multiple such usages; for example, a single design may serve a dual role as war flag and ensign. Even with such combinations, this framework is not complete: some countries define designs for usage contexts not expressible in this scheme such as air force ensigns (distinct from war flags or war ensigns, flown as the national flag at air bases; for example, see Royal Air Force Ensign) and civil air ensigns.

Other symbols

Other symbols are used to describe how a flag looks, such as whether it has a different design on each side, or if it is hung vertically, etc. These are the symbols in general use:


  1. For example, 36 US Code §176 provides: “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”
  2. "Flying flags upside down". 30 September 2006. Archived from the original on 19 May 2012.

External links

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