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.

Flag types

Banderole or bannerol

Main article: Banderole

A small flag or streamer carried on the lance of a knight, or a long narrow flag flown from the mast-head of a ship.

Main article: Banner

Generically, a synonym for a flag of any kind, and in heraldry specifically, a square or rectangular flag whose design is identical to the shield of a coat of arms; also denominated a banner of arms.

Main article: Burgee

A distinguishing flag of a recreational boating organisation, which commonly has the shape of a pennant.
Civil ensign, merchant flag, or merchant ensign

Main article: Civil ensign

A version of a national flag that is flown on civil ships to denote their nationality.
Civil flag

Main article: Civil flag

A version of a national flag that is flown on civil installations or craft.
Colour or color

Main article: Military colours, standards and guidons

The flag of a military unit.
Corner flag

Main article: Football pitch § Pitch boundary

A small flag flown at each of the corners of a football pitch or other sports field.
Courtesy flag or courtesy ensign

Main article: Maritime flag § Courtesy flag

A flag that is flown on a visiting ship in foreign waters as a sign of respect for the foreign nation.

Main article: Ensign

The flag of any ship or military unit, or, generically, a synonym for any kind of flag. On ships, an ensign is normally flown at the stern.

Main article: Fanion

A small flag that the French military uses.
Gonfalon, gonfanon, or gonfalone

Main article: Gonfalon

A heraldic flag that is suspended and pendent from a crossbar.

Main article: Military colours, standards and guidons

A small flag that a military unit flies; in Scottish heraldry, a smaller version of the standard (see below).

Main article: Jack (flag)

A flag flown from a short jackstaff at the bow of a ship.
Pennon or pennant

Main article: Pennon

A flag that is wider at the hoist than at the fly.
Pipe banner

Main article: Pipe banner

A decorative flag for Scottish Highland bagpipes.
Prayer flag

Main article: Prayer flag

A kind of flag that is flown along mountain ridges and peaks in the Himalayas in order to bless the surrounding land.
Rank flag or distinguishing flag

Main article: Maritime flag § Rank flags

A flag that a superior naval officer flies on his flagship or headquarters.
Signal flag

Main article: Flag signals

A flag or pennant that communicates or signals information that is not heraldic.

Main article: Heraldic flag § Standard

In heraldry, a long tapering flag that bears heraldic badges and the motto of the armiger; it may also refer to a military colour that cavalry units fly or a royal standard of a monarch or member of a royal family.
State flag or governmental flag

Main article: State flag

A version of a national flag that represents and may be restricted in use only to the national government and agencies thereof; the design of many state flags consists of the civil flag (see above) defaced with a coat of arms or other heraldic charge.

Main article: Vexilloid

A flag-like object that is used in a similar symbolic manner as a flag, but that differs from a conventional flag in some way.

Main article: Vexillum

A flag-like object that is suspended from a horizontal crossbar; the Ancient Roman army used it as its military standard.
War flag, military flag, or battle flag

Main article: War flag

A variant of a national flag that a nation's military forces use on land.

Main article: Windsock

A conical textile tube that is used to indicate the direction and strength of wind.

Flag elements

A coat of arms or simple heraldic symbol.
Any quarter of a flag, but commonly means the upper hoist 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.
A decorative or protective cap atop the flagpole. Often shaped like a sphere, but can also be a shape with heraldic significance, such as a spear or an eagle. Sometimes referred to as a capper.
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.
Width or breadth
The span of a flag down the side parallel to the flagpole.

Basic patterns

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

Flag of Maldives
Flag of Malaysia
Flag of Panama
Greek cross

(couped cross)

Flag of Switzerland
Symmetric cross
Flag of Georgia
Nordic cross
Flag of Iceland
Flag of Canada
Flag of Austria
Flag of Tanzania
Flag of Palestine
Flag of South Africa
Flag of Scotland

Techniques in flag display

Flying the flag upside-down,[1] or tying it into a wheft.[2]

Main article: Half-mast

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, which is written from right to left; for these 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:

  • Normal or de jure version of flag, or obverse side
  • Design was proposed in the past, but never officially adopted
  • Design is a reconstruction, based on past observations
  • Reverse side of flag
  • Design is an acceptable variant
  • Alternative version of flag
  • De facto version of flag
  • Flag has different designs on its obverse side and its reverse side
  • Obverse side meant to be hoisted with pole to the observer's right
  • Design officially authorized to represent nation by government of that nation
  • Design used in the past, but now abandoned (this symbol is not part of Smith's original set)
  • Reverse side is mirror image of obverse side
  • Reverse side is congruent to obverse side
  • Information on reverse side is not available
  • Flag can be hung vertically by hoisting on a normal pole, then turning the pole ninety degrees
  • Flag can be hung vertically by rotating the design first
  • Vertical hoist method of flag is unknown
  • Design has no element which can be rotated
  • Flags can only be hoisted vertically

In Unicode

In April 2017, a preliminary proposal[3] to encode vexillology symbols was submitted to the Unicode Consortium.


  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.
  3. Pandey, Anshuman: "Preliminary proposal to encode Vexillology Symbols in Unicode"
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