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 ∫


Independence Day celebrates the United States’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain, in case you’ve never heard of this country called the United States) on July 4, 1776.  Celebrants mark the day with parades, barbecues, fireworks–and, if you’re me, etymologies, because nothing says “stars and stripes” quite like a good word origin.

I, for one, am going to declare independence independent from all its morphological bunting. That is, if we strip down to its root, what do we find?

First, here, in- means “not,” so we are left with “not dependence.” Then we have -ence, a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs, leaving us with “the condition of being dependent.” It varies with the French -ance (Latin, –entia), with French shifting Latin’s e to an a, though the endings are doing the same work. English has a fanfare of words like appearance in some cases and word like existence in other cases, all depending, shall I say, on which words were altered back from the French spelling to conform with the Latin spelling in Modern English’s early days.

So, now we are looking at depend, which, again, is Latin via French. The Latin dependēre, literally meaning “to hang down,” with de- denoting “down.”  At this point, we have Latin’s pendēre, “to hang,” cousin to pendere, “to weigh,” depending on the length of the vowel. (The bar above the e in pendēre is called a “macron,” signifying, essentially, a long vowel.)

The root, then, is pendwhich is hanging down from the Proto-Indo-European (s)pen-, “to draw, stretch, spin.” Down Germanic lines, the root gave English spin and span and a whole host of related words. Down the Italic line, with some vowel changes and some suffixes to the root, we get words like pound and ponderous. Of course, Latin’s very own pend- (in both forms) produces everything from appendix to compensate to pensive to stipend. Indeed, metaphor is having an impressive fireworks display with all that it has done with this root.

And then we have spangle, as in that star-spangled banner, the American flag and title of the US national anthem. (I could see the word becoming fossilized in the phrase; it’s certainly the only context I ever hear or see it in.)


The star-spangled banner said to have inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem and, later, US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anyways, spangled is “decorated with spangles,” little pieces of glittering metal or the decorative like. The word most likely comes from the Middle Dutch spange, a “clasp” or “brooch,” with the notion of ornament as the connecting sense. Etymologists aren’t sure, but this spange may point back to a Germanic base, *spango-, a derivative of (s)pen-.

For my compatriots, Happy Fourth. But we all know what we’re really celebrating is that the holiday falls on a Friday. And nothing says “America” like a 3-day weekend.