In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, the United States has been examining the place the Confederate flag should have in American culture. Any arguments in favor of it on public grounds are flagging, shall we say. The etymology of the word certainly doesn’t aid the rebel cause.

Put out that flag!
Put out that flag? “Butt.” Felt tip and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been flying flag since the late 15th century. The OED explains that the word is “found in all modern Germanic languages, but apparently first recorded in English.” Its ultimate origin, however, is obscure.

Scholars have unfurled several ideas for the etymology of flag: 

  • Some irises are called “flags” and have sword-shaped leaves. The resemblance between the blade-like shape of these leaves and the form of a flag may have thus given flag its name.
  • Another flag, as in flagstones, is the flat slab used in paving. Again, the shape of these rocks may have inspired our name for cloth flags. The stony flag has Scandinavian roots and is related to English’s flakeflaw, and flay.
  • The noun might also derive from the verb, as to flag is “to hang down” or “flap about loosely,” as the OED defines this word that we’ve extended to mean “to lag” or “to languish.” This verbal flag might come from an earlier adjective, flag, “hanging down.” This flag might flap atop a Latin staff: flaccidus (“drooping”), from flaccus (“flabby”). Or it might be hoisted from the Old Norse flaka, “to flutter” or “to hang loosely,” which Skeat has connected to flaunt.

The answer, my friend, may be blown’ in the wind: Flag might just imitate the sound of a flag flapping in the wind. Flap, whose flappy gives us flabby, also expresses this sound. In fact, English has a great number of fl– phonesthemes that suggest flying, flowing, and sudden motion: flutterflit, fleeflick, flap, and the archaic flack and flacker. And flag? Perhaps the final constant portrays the limpness and looseness of a windless ensign.

Speaking of flick, smokers might do this to a fag they’ve finished smoking. This fag is from the fag-end, or butt, of a cigarette, as a fag is the end part of a piece of cloth, which often hangs down, making it a possible corruption of flag.

Whatever the origin of the word, some flags are simply red flags in need of a color change–white, in this case for surrender.


m ∫ r ∫

3 thoughts on “flag

  1. I think of all the theories I like the botanical “flag” one the most. It seems to be the earliest attested and I’m probably swayed with the allusion more so because I grew up in the fenland area of Eastern England where the flat landscape is abound in yellow flag irises, reeds and rushes in fact there’s a Bronze Age archaeology site nearby called “Flag Fen” . Although today we associate the qualifying word “flag” with irises – incidentally in Danish “flæg” is another name for the “yellow flag iris” (Iris pseudacorus) – the earlier sense of the word “flag” applied to any reed, rush or sedge growing in moist places and being familiar with ‘flags’ in all of these senses growing in the countryside they do resemble flags flapping in the wind with their stems resembling a flagpole.


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