Last modified: 2013-12-22 by rob raeside
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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 'fle˘gan'
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
www.podictionary.com 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
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
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: