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Etymology of Vexillological terminology

Last modified: 2002-09-21 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillology | terminology | etymology | vexillum |
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According to Charlton Lewis' Elementary Latin dictionary, a vexillium is "a military ensign, standard, banner, or flag." A vexillarius is "a standard-bearer, or under the empire, the oldest class of veterans."

According to Lawrence Keppie, The Making of the Roman Army, "Marius [Gaius Marius, Roman general of the early 1st century B.C. and reorganizer of the Roman army] is also credited with making the eagle (aquila) the legion's first standard, and a focus of loyalty and affection. Our source, the Elder Pliny, places the adoption of the eagle at 104 B.C...He notes that the legion hitherto had had a variety of standards--the eagle (which had always had the first place) the wolf, the minotaur, the horse and the boar, and that all ahd been carried in front of different elements of the legion...All were animal totems, reflecting the religious beliefs of an agricultural society. The boar also appears as an important battle-standard among the Celts...coins of 82 and 49 [B.C.] show an aquila flanked by other standards which bear a little square plaque or flag with the single letters H and P. These must be standards specifically for the hastati and princepes [two of the three components of the legion, along with the triarii]...they consist of slender poles decorated with circular bosses, but bear no animal figures....At the close of the Republic [late 1st cent. B.C.] it seems likely therefore that the legion's three most important standards were the aquila in the care of the primus pilus (chief centurion of the triarii) and two others, presumably in the charge of the princeps and the hastatus (senior centurions of the other two groups)...the eagle-bearer (aquilifer) of the legion was thus the man who carried the standard of the senior century of the First Maniple of the triarii [i.e. he was in front]. In battle and on the march the standards were important as a rallying point. To lose, or surrender, a standard, especially the eagle itself, was a disgrace."

Josh Fruhlinger, 13 March 1996

The vexillum (pl. vexilla; v pronounced like an English w in classical Latin) was the term for the standard carried by the Roman legion. This word is itself a diminuative for velum, sail, which confirms the art historical evidence (from coins and sculpture) that vexilla were literally "little sails" i.e. flag-like. (Velum in English has various specialized meanings, mostly pertaining to sail-like things: the membranes of certain mollusks, and a kind of drafting paper, bear the name.) Going further back, the word velum comes from the Indo-European roots VAG- or VEH-, involving motion. These produced the Germanic words that became Saxon (and later English) words like wagon and way, which are unrelated to the flying verbs above.

Josh Fruhlinger, 26 November 1996


From the Oxford English Dictionary:

vexillology veksilo+-lo'dZi. f. L. vexill-um flag + -ology. The study of flags.

  • 1959 Arab World (N.Y.) Oct. 13/1 One of the most interesting phases of vexillology -the study of flags- is the important contribution to our heritage of flags by the Arab World.
  • 1961 Flag Bull. Fall 7/2 Editors Grahl and Smith use vexillology' and its cognates, vexillologist, vexillological.
  • 1966 Occasional Newslet. to Librarians Jan. 4 This unknown specialist has demonstrated his great knowledge of heraldry and vexillology.
  • 1970 W. Smith Flag Bk. U.S. i. 3 In 1965 the first International Congress of Vexillology was held in the Netherlands.
vexillo'logical a.;
  • 1961 [see above].
  • 1963 Recall (Boston) Oct. 4 (heading) Travel notes and vexillological addendum.
  • 1965 W. Smith Bibliogr. Flags of Foreign Nations p. v, Its three principal activities have been the encouragement of contacts and exchanges of information between vexillologists around the world, the coordination of research efforts, and the building up of a library of books and other flag materials.
  • 1971 Daily Tel. 19 Nov. 13/7 Between 60 and 70..historians, antiquaries, designers and students of heraldry are expected at an international vexillological congress.
  • 1973 Smithsonian Dec. 50/2 Redividing the states would mean redesigning the flag. In vexillologist Whitney Smith's scheme, he retains the symbolism of 13.
  • 1983 Christian Science Monitor 8 Apr. 20/1 Father Young is the official community vexillological custodian.
vexillum veksi-lA'm. L. (in sense 1), f. the stem of vehe're to carry.
1. a. A flag or banner carried by Roman troops; a body of men grouped under one banner.
  • 1726 Gordon Itin. Sept. 79 The Figures of two winged Victories, supporting the Roman Vexillum.
  • 1805 James Mil. Dict. (ed. 2), Vexillum, the standard which was carried by the Roman horse.
  • 1891 Cent. Dict. s.v., These vexilla averaged from 500 to 600 in strength.
b. Eccl. A small piece of linen or silk attached to the upper part of a crozier.
  • 1877 F. G. Lee Gloss. Eccl. & Liturg; Terms 438 Many examples of the vexillum are represented in illuminated MSS.
  • 1905 Ch. Times 3 Feb. 136/3 The vexillum sometimes attached to a pastoral staff was a `sudarium' or handkerchief, in all probability.
2. Bot. The large external petal of a papilionaceous flower.
  • 1727 Bailey (vol. II), Vexillum, the Banner of the broad Single Leaf, which stands upright.
  • 1760 J. Lee Introd. Bot. ii. xx. (1765) 116 Vexillum, the Standard, a Petal covering the rest.
  • C. 1789 Encycl. Brit. (ed. 3) III. 446/2 The superior [petal] ascending, (called the vexillum or flag).
  • 1821 W. P. C. Barton Flora N. Amer. I. 11 Corolla with a long sabre-shaped vexillum of a deep carmine-red colour.
  • 1872 Oliver Elem. Bot. App. 304 Corolla [of garden pea] papilionaceous, white; vexillum large.
3. Ornith. The vane or web of a feather.
  • 1867 P. L. Sclater tr. Nitzsch's Pterylography 10 The Barbs..form, with the parts seated upon them, the so-called Vane (vexillum).
  • 1872 Coues N. Amer. Birds 2 The rhachis..alone bears vexilla.
  • 1872 Coues N. Amer. Birds 34 Except in the case of a few of the innermost remiges, their outer always narrower than the inner.

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