Let’s talk about vex. Vexillology, that is
For something so simple, a flag can be a dangerous thing: historic, divisive, representing oppression, imperialism, and nationalism. But they can also be a symbol of pride, of independence, or of rebirth. Here we look at a bunch of flags from around the world and see what oddities we can run up the pole.
Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. We’ve already mentioned vexillology: that’s the study of flags to you and me. But there are also special names for the common designs you see on flags.
The main body of a flag is called the field (or ground). There can be other elements to it, as we will see, but you’d say, for example, that the flag of Australia has a blue field, and the flag of Turkey a red one.
On top of the field, you might have a canton, a design in the top-left corner: 50 stars for the US on a field of thirteen stripes, a Union Jack for New Zealand, a sun for Uruguay. You might have a cross, be it Scandinavian (Sweden, Finland), symmetric (Georgia, England), a saltire (Scotland, Jamaica), or Greek (Switzerland, confusingly).
Some flags don’t have a field color; maybe they’re divided into horizontal or vertical stripes. These stripes are known as fesses if they’re horizontal (Germany, Russia), or pales if they’re vertical (Ireland, France).
You can divide your flag in other ways. Diagonal divisions are known as bends, for example in the flags of Trinidad and Tobago or the DR Congo. Maybe you fancy adding a chevron: that’s a triangle entering from the left, as featured on the flags of the Czech Republic or the Philippines.
Perhaps you’d like your flag to feature quarters (Panama), a pall (South Africa), or a border (Grenada)?
Finally, you might want to throw something else on top. These are known as charges. They could be a badge, such as a coat of arms (Mexico), or an emblem such as a star (Ghana), a bird (Zambia), or something more modern, like Canada’s maple leaf.
So, you’ve got your flag. Let’s go further…
Back in time
The oldest continuously used national flag is that of Denmark. These things are notoriously difficult to formalize, with slight changes in flags’ designs and dimensions over the centuries provoking debate as to what’s “the same design” or not, and lack of historical records muddying the waters still further.
The Guinness Book of World Records, however, recognizes the Dannebrog, or Danish cloth, as the oldest. It’s been in confirmed use since 1625, with minor variations dating back to as early as (some sources claim) 1219.
Many flags feature stars, but what do they mean? Well, some of them are simply actual stars. The flag of New Zealand features four stars representing the constellation of the Southern Cross, while the Australian flag also references the constellation, adding a fifth star to it as well as a larger, seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star.
Brazil’s is far more complex. The arrangement of stars corresponds to nine constellations seen above Rio de Janeiro, with each of the 27 stars symbolizing a Brazilian state. It’s a lovely piece of work, with the blue circle representing the disc of the night sky and the white band the equator.
Then there are stars as symbols. China’s flag has five stars. The largest represents the Communist Party of China, while the four that surround it are for the four social classes mentioned by Mao Zedong: the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie.
The stars on the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina, unusually, include two that are cut in half by the edge of the design; the number of stars is supposed to be infinite as if they’re scrolling past. Panama’s flag contains two stars, one red and one blue, said to stand for the rival political parties, while the white on which they stand is meant to represent the peace in which they operate. Other flags use a single star to represent ideas such as hope, guidance, independence, or solidarity.
Most flags are rectangular, but there are a few exceptions. The flags of both Switzerland and Vatican City are perfectly square, while the flag of Nepal has five sides, in a shape known as a double pennon.
A couple more have unusual aspect ratios, such as Qatar, whose flag is over two and a half times longer than it is wide, or Togo, the flag of which has the very specific ratio of 2:3.23607, or the golden ratio.
Emblem of a nation
You’re designing a flag. Stars are… well, they’ve been done. You need something else. An emblem for your nation. Well, there are a number of unusual examples out there.
We’ve already mentioned Canada’s famous maple leaf, featuring prominently on their flag, and a fittingly bold yet innocent design that’s rightly become a national icon.
Less innocent but no less bold is the flag of Mozambique, featuring a farming hoe crossed with an AK-47 assault rifle, backed by an open book and a yellow, five-pointed star. Agriculture, vigilance, education, and Marxism are the respective meanings here.
South Korea’s elegant flag centers around the blue and red of yin and yang, known as a Taegeuk, representing universal balance. The four trigrams that surround it symbolize the four classical elements, namely air, fire, water, and earth.
A couple of flags contain dragons. Bhutan has Druk, the Thunder Dragon, scaling the flag from left to right, while Wales glories in Y Ddraig Goch (The Red Dragon), a creature that occurs in a number of Welsh myths and legends and was the symbol of Cadwaladr, a king from around 655 to 682 AD, and a redeemer figure in Welsh culture.
The flag of Lebanon features a cedar tree. The Lebanese cedar is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah using it as a metaphor for the pride of the world, Moses ordering it to be used in the treatment of leprosy, and Solomon using cedar timber to build the Temple in Jerusalem.
Of course, there are hundreds — thousands, millions? — of other flags around the world: those of regions, cities, territories, islands, even places as-yet officially unrecognized. So what of those?
Two islands — the Isle of Man, and Sicily — share an element of their flag which is unusual, and it’s called a triskelion. Three bent human legs emerging from a central point, the design was first used on Sicilian coins as early as 382 BC, becoming associated with the Isle of Man later when it became the coat of arms of the Manx kings in the early 14th century.
The flag of the city of Antwerp in Belgium is like a chessboard with a migraine, consisting of 24 squares in four rows and six columns and, starting with white squares in the top-right and bottom-left corners, is made up of diagonal runs of blue, yellow, red, and white squares respectively.
US state and territory flags are often curiosities. Guam’s just looks like a cheap t-shirt; a palm tree, beach, and yacht with the word GUAM picked out in red. California, famously, features a bear. Colorado’s looks like the badge of a mid-ranking Central American soccer team. The flag of Oregon has a different image on either side. And Maryland? Just… wow. What on earth was going on there?
Khoroshevo-Mnevniki, a district in north-west Moscow, has a flag featuring a bizarre cartoon beaver that resembles what you might draw if the only thing you knew about what a beaver looked like was the teeth, and even then you weren’t much of an artist. Seriously, Google it. Meet me back here. Drnis, in Croatia, has a chap (St. Roch, or so it says here) showing his wounded leg to a dog. A dog with a mouth full of bread. West Bothnia in Sweden is just a tacky Christmas sweater. Find yourself a list of Russian regional flags to see a merlion, a ladder, a stoned cow wearing a crown, some sort of Lego brick, and a bear splitting an atom.
All in all, if someone, somewhere, has had an idea, you can pretty much assume it’s turned up on a flag.
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