Flag collecting is a hobby less publicized than its famous cousins, coin collecting and stamp collecting. But vexillology, meaning the study of flags, is as intriguing and challenging as numismatics (coins) or philatelics (stamps).
Whether you focus on flags of nations, states, counties, cities, corporations or service groups, you need to be familiar with the basic vocabulary of vexillology. Just as a beginning medical student has to know Anatomy 101, you have to master some specialized terms in order to know your way around a flag. Here is a list of vocabulary every flag collector needs to know:
Staff – This is the correct term for the flag pole. Vexillologists never say “pole.” Instead, they refer to a staff or flagstaff. Vexillologists cringe when they hear people say a flag is at “half mast” when honoring the deceased. The correct term is “half staff.” (Unless the flag is flying from a ship’s mast. That is the only situation when “half mast” is accurate.)
Hoist – This refers to the edge of the flag that is nearest the staff (or the flag pole, remember). Also called the hoist side, this term sometimes refers to the vertical width of a flag.
Fly – This refers to the edge of the flag that is away from the staff. Also called the fly side, this term sometimes refers to the horizontal length of a flag.
Width – The span of a flag down the side parallel to the staff.
Length – The span of a flag along the side at right angles to the staff.
Field – This is the background color of a flag.
Charge – This is any emblem, design, figure or symbol appearing in the basic field of a flag. The red maple leaf is the charge of the Canadian flag.
Badge – Use this word when referring to a coat of arms, a shield or a heraldic symbol depicted on a flag.
Fimbriation – This is a border or narrow edging on a flag used to separate two other colors.
Canton – This refers to any quarter of a flag, but usually means the upper left, or upper hoist quarter. The field of stars in the American flag is in the canton.
Saltire – A cross that extends diagonally, going to the borders of the four corners of a flag. St. Andrew’s cross is an example of this, as is the flag of Scotland. Another example is the contentious Confederate flag, which is often erroneously referred to as the “Stars and Bars.” Vexillologists call it a saltire.
Symmetric Cross – A cross that extends to the borders at the center vertical width and horizontal length of a flag. The flag of Dominican Republic is an example of this.
Scandinavian Cross – A cross that extends to the borders at the center horizontal length but off-center to the hoist edge at the vertical width. The flags of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are examples of this.
Greek Cross – A cross of equal hatches on the flag’s field that does not extend to the borders. Think of the flags of Switzerland and the Red Cross for examples of this. A Greek Cross is in the canton of the flag of Greece.
Pales – These are wide vertical bands, each occupying a third of the width of a flag. For example, the flags of France, Belgium, Ireland, Mexico and Italy.
Fesses – These are wide horizontal bands extending across the length of a flag. For example, the flags of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russian Federation.
Pall – This is a “Y” shaped design extending either vertically or horizontally across a flag. The flag of South Africa is an example of this.
Chevron – This refers to a triangle design at the hoist edge of a flag. Flags representing Mozambique and Palestine utilize a chevron.
Tricolor – Refers to a flag of three equal bands of contrasting colors, such as France.
Bicolor – Refers to a flag of two equal parts of contrasting colors, such as that of Ukraine.
Pennants and banners are distinguished from flags because they hang straight down from a horizontal mount. This straight drop ensures that the graphic on a pennant or banner is continually visible. Pennants and banners were probably born on the battlefield as highly visible rallying markers for armies and battalions.
In contrast, flags are attached to a vertical staff and collapse in the absence of a supporting breeze. The graphics on a flag do not show themselves unless there is wind to coax them into unfurling. Perhaps it is this aspect of mystery and interaction with the elements that makes flags and flag collecting such an attractive hobby.