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Etymology of Vexillological terminology

Last modified: 2013-12-28 by rob raeside
Keywords: vexillology | terminology | etymology | vexillum |
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My dictionary has it (with a '?') related to the word 'flap'. Personally, I don't buy it, because such similar words exist in Danish and German.
Albert S. Kirsch, 16 September 2003

According to Perrin the etymology of the word is "obscure", but he goes on to say that "Perhaps the most satisfactory of the derivations hitherto put forward is that of Professor Skeet, who derives it from the Middle English 'flakken' to the fly", and given the similarity of the word in Danish and Norse, Swedish, German and Dutch I personally would suggest that this makes sense.

English developed through successive invasions (incursions or settlements if you prefer) by Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Norsemen etc., from the 4th to the 10th Centuries AD, and so is a complex amalgam of related sources. As I understand it, "Middle English" implies no significant Norman-French influence..
Christopher Southworth, 16 September 2003

'Middle English' (roughly the English of Chaucer, ca 1400) does contain a great deal of French. 'Old English' or 'Anglo-Saxon' is pre-1066. It is clearly a Germanic language. My little (and antique) Anglo-Saxon Grammar has the verb 'fleôgan' meaning 'to fly', and I expect it's of a piece with related words in German, Dutch, Norse, etc. No non-Germanic tribe invaded England ('Angle-land') until 1066; though they spoke French, they too were Northmen by descent (Normans; not a folk etymology - William the Conqueror descended from Rolf the Viking.)
Albert S. Kirsch, 17 September 2003

A podcast by Charles Hodgson on English word origins did an episode on April 6, 2009, on the origin of the word "Flag." The transcript is posed below my signature. If you want to see the transcript in its natural habitat, or listen to it instead of reading it, go to episode 953.
Terence Martin, 9 April 2009

flag - podictionary 953
Apr 6th, 2009

Here's a quote from Charles Sumner: "There is the national flag. He must be cold, indeed, who can look upon its folds rippling in the breeze without pride of country."

Sumner was a Massachusetts politician from almost 150 years ago who, among other things, campaigned for votes for freed slaves after the American Civil War.

Here's an alternative view from James Baldwin: "It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you."

Baldwin died in 1987 and was among other things a civil rights activist so I guess there is more than just quotes on flags that ties the two of these guys together.

It seems to me that people put a lot of emotion into flags. Flags are symbols
and it's symbolic also that people should hold such strong and often opposing
views invested in flags.

For something so important to us it's a bit surprising that the word flag had only been in English for about 100 years by the time of Shakespeare. There were flags in England before 500 years ago, but they weren't called flags. Just what they were called tells a tale both of flags and of English dialects. I'll start by reviewing the history of flags.

It is thought that the idea for flags originated in India or China and was brought to western European use after crusaders saw them in use by their Islamic enemies. At first Europeans used flags showing symbols of their various patron saints. The first English flags are reported to have been a white cross in 1198 and then a red cross 1277. The cross of St. George is still there on the British flag which is actually a blend with two other crosses, that of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland and St. Patrick who I don't think I need to explain which country he was the patron saint of.

The reason these things were called flags is not known for sure but there are a few theories. A similar word shows up in several Germanic languages so although the timing might point to Latin or French those don't seem to have been the source. Flag is thought possibly to be an onomatopoeia, which is to say flap sounds a bit like a flag flapping. But there's a hint there too in the fact that when a marathon runner is getting tired they are said to be flagging. There is a "hanging down limply" meaning associated with the word as well.

So what was it that English speakers called flags before the word flag emerged? A flag was called a fane. The tale this tells of flags is that even before the word flag arrived there were symbolic emblems in use, and even before these were made of cloth after the inspiration of the Islamic world and cultures further east before them, there were rigid flags in use. The word fane you'll recognize in weather vane; a metal flag that the wind blows.

And this leads to the story of English dialects. Just as the word fox came from the north of England and the word vixen from the south, fane was a northern word while vane appeared based on the southern tendency to use "v" where northerners used "f".
Terence Martin, 9 April 2009


An object which functions as a flag but differs from it in some respect, usually appearance. Vexilloids are characteristic of traditional societies and often consist of a staff with and emblem, such as a carved animal, at the top.


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 had 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 diminutive 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.


Additional terms

(tentative defintion) The set of flags falling into the category of archivexillum as proposed be limited to those regulated by some authority or as a recommendation to establish symmetry between flags of a certain class, i.e. prototype flag.
  • 2003 Lewis A. Nowitz, "Archivexillum...", FOTW posting and subsequent discussion, 25 October 2003 et. seq.
Vexillological research and/or publication of vexillological information using electronic means, particularly the Internet or other electronic delivery means. Short version: cybervex.
  • 1999 Phillip Nelson, The Cybervexillology Problem, NAVA News, Vol. 32, No. 6, November/December 1999
  • 2001 Peter Orenski, Quo vadimus? An essay on the state and future of vexillology, The Flag Bulletin, XL-4, No. 200, 2001
  • 2002 Peter Orenski, Quo vadimus? An essay on the state and future of vexillology 2003 (privately published)
a flag or pennant bearing the name of a ship.
  • 2004 Kevin Harrington, The "Name Pennant" or Onomast in Maritime Vexillology, Flagscan, No. 73, Summer 2004

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