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Vexillological terminology

Last modified: 2002-12-20 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillology | terminology | flag terms | protocol |
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Vexillological terminology

by Zeljko Heimer, 1996-MAY-21, based on image from WBE

See also:

Flag Protocol

In the United States the US flag is to be displayed on its own right, or on the highest pole. Other flags such as the UN and state flags are to be flown to the United States' flag's left or on lower poles. Do European states have similar rules? If so where does the EU flag fly relative to the flags of the composite states?
Nathan Bliss, 08 November 1996

The only reference I can find (admittedly on a cursory check) to any sort of flag precedence in the UK is from a section in Whitaker's Almanac on days for flying the Union Flag (bizarrely government buildings in the UK only have to fly the national flag on certain days of the year, not all year round), which states that on April 23rd, St George's Day, in England the Cross of St. George may be flown in addition to the Union Flag where there is more than one flagpole available, but not in a superior position. However it does not define what a superior position is! The implication that if only one flagpole is available St. George has to stay in the flaglocker is clear. Certainly on days when the Union Flag is to be flown, here in Winchester the flags of the city and county at the Westgate and Castle are replaced by the Union. If only the county council had two flagpoles on its main offices, I could give a definitive answer.
Roy Stilling, 08 November 1996

Division of flags by users

Civil flags
The national flag flown on land by private citizens.
State flags
representing the actual government power for example the nation itself, districts and cities, and govenment functions like customs and border guards. The national flag flown on land over non-military [yet government-owned] property; also called government flag.
Personal flags
Colors representing an individual power or authority. The President of the United State's flag or Minister of National Defence of the DDR.
Positional Color
A positional color is similar to a rank flag, except that it represents an office a person holds, rather than his/her rank. He/she can keep the rank flag but not the positional color when he/she changes position or retires.
Organisation Flags
Sports teams and Trade Unions.
Naval Flags
Navies and Merchant Marine use all sorts of flags and signals. I lump them together for ease, also the construction of the flags is different that land flags (in most cases)

James Gaddis, 08 December 1995
Nick Artimovich, 23 February 1996

Division of flags according to W. Smith

W. Smith has a nice six fold table making up a typology of flags. In English it goes like this:

Private Public Military
Land Civil Flag State Flag War Flag
Sea Civil Ensign State Ensign War Ensign

Jan Oskar Engene, 08 December 1995

Some comments

1. In English speaking countries -- at least in the US and UK -- it is common to speak of war flags as military flags. This would include personal flags, such as that of an army commander or a general, and unit flags, such as a particular regiment.
2. Naval ensigns are normally flown are referred to a jack in the USN and flown from the jack staff -- at the bows -- when in port. National colors are flown from the flag staff at the stern when in port and from the mainmast when at sea. Both the jack staff and the flag staff are removed when at sea to permit a clear field of fire for naval weapons.
3. National colors are flown 24 hours a day when at sea, but it and the jack are flown only between sunrise and sunset when in port.
4. One caveat -- the above were the custom in the mid-1950's -- when I did my National service -- and before. As we all know, economics and politics have a way of changing century-old traditions, and I cannot state with certainty that this hasn't happened!
Alvan Fisher, 08 December 1995

Civil vs. State Flags

The laws regarding use of civil flags versus state flags vary from country to country. For example, private citizens are not allowed to purchase the state flag of Germany (Bundesdienstflagge, black/ red/ gold with a central gold shield with a black eagle) because it is the flag of the state - only state officials and institutions may use it. The flag laws of Austria were changed a number of years ago and the flag with the eagle was restricted to official use only. According to J.O. Engene, he is unable to purchase the Norwegian state flag. I believe that in most cases the state flag was designated for use by government officials only, and the civil flag, or "national colors", could be used by citizens. Note the illustration in Flags Through the Ages and Across the World page 129 shows a bullring in Spain with meters and meters of flags/ banners in the red/ yellow/ red pattern of the national flag with the caption "the length of the flag here is no concern, only its colors and the widths of the stripes are considered important.

The implication that people may fly the "state" flag just because it is available and inexpensively printed does not legitimize its use. We in the US only have the Stars and Stripes to wave for civil flag, state flag, national ensign, etc. I would appreciate comments from other FOTW members about the "correct" use of your state or government flag versus actual flag display.

Nick Artimovich, 23 February 1996

That is right. The Norwegian state flag is strictly for official use, and state flags are not sold to the public. For ordinary people to use one would be prepostrous - claiming an authority one does not possess. Using one outside the country would amount to the same, at least in the eyes of Norwegians. I would find it strange if Norwegian-Americans would want to buy flags with split and tongue. Perhaps the situation is different for the Nordic flags, since the state version does not add arms to the national flag but instead adds a split and/or tongue.

Jan Oskar Engene, 26 February 1996


The heraldical way of solving this is applying the usual rules of pre-eminence to partitions, successively. In a quartered banner-of-arms, for instance, the dexter chief (ie. top hoist) quarter would be described first. In a gyronny [of eight] banner-of-arms, one should (a) take only the top hoist quarter (b) consider it is divided "per bend" and hence describe first the top (chief) triangle - the one Jorge indicates. If it were, say, a gyronny of sixteen, on top of the "bend" would be two triangles, so the one dexter (ie. to the hoist) would go first - again the one indicated by Jorge. If the gyronny is such that one of the gyrons fits the top hoist corner, that one goes first - once again as Jorge says. Once you have found the correct gyron with which to start, you proceed sinister (ie. clockwise in this context).

In practice, the first gyron is the one which occupies the area immediately to the right of the top hoist corner -- whether such gyron starts there or occupies also the contiguous area below the top hoist corner. Which means the dividing line is 10:30 rather than 9:00...
Santiago Dotor, 20 July 1999, 15 Mar 2000

Just to be pedantic - it's only 10:30 if the flag is square - in the case of a 1:2 flag it is more like 9:50...
Jonathan Dixon, 16 March 2000


A flag is "broken" when it is hoisted wrapped in a bundle, then broken open to fly free when it is already at the top of the mast or pole. The bundle is made by folding or rolling the flag tightly, then wrapping it with a thin string tied to the lower halyard. When the halyard is tugged sharply, the string breaks allowing the flag to fly.
Joe McMillan, 9 April 2002