Glossary of vexillology

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Flag terminology is the nomenclature, or system of terms, used in vexillology, the study of flags, to describe precisely the parts, patterns, and other attributes of flags and their display.

Description of standard flag parts and terms

Parts of a flag

a coat of arms or simple heraldic symbol.
any quarter of a flag, but commonly means the upper hoist (left) quarter, such as the field of stars in the flag of the United States or the Union Jack in the Australian Flag.
a figure or symbol appearing in the field of a flag.
a device often used as a charge on a flag. It may be heraldic in origin or modern, for example the maple leaf on the Canadian Flag.
the background of a flag; the color behind the charges.
a narrow edging or border, often in white or gold, on a flag to separate two other colors. For example the white and gold lines of the South African Flag.
the half or edge of a flag farthest away from the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the horizontal length of a flag.
the half or edge of a flag nearest to the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the vertical width of a flag.
the span of a flag along the side at right angles to the flagpole.
the span of a flag down the side parallel to the flagpole.

Basic patterns in flags

Flags often inherit traits seen in traditional European heraldry designs and as a result patterns often share names.

Flag types gallery.svg

Techniques in flag display

flying the flag upside-down,[1] or tying it into a wheft.[2]
a style of flag display where the flag is flown at least the width of the flag between the top of the flag and the top of the pole.
the act or function of raising a flag, as on a rope.
the act or function of taking down a flag, as on a rope.


Flag illustrations generally depict flags flying from the observer's point of view from left to right, the view known as the obverse (or "front"); the other side is the reverse (or "back"). There are some exceptions, notably some Islamic flags inscribed in Arabic, for which the obverse is defined as the side with the hoist to the observer's right.

Flag identification symbols

A vexillological symbol is used by vexillologists to indicate certain characteristics of national flags, such as where they are used, who uses them, and what they look like. The set of symbols described in this article are known as international flag identification symbols, which were devised by Whitney Smith.

National flag variants by use

Some countries use a single flag design to serve as the national flag in all contexts of use; others use multiple flags that serve as the national flag, depending on context (i.e., who is flying the national flag and where). The six basic contexts of use (and potential variants of a national flag) are:

FIAV 100000.svg civil flag – Flown by citizens on land.
FIAV 010000.svg state flag – Flown on public buildings.
FIAV 001000.svg war flag – Flown on military buildings.
FIAV 000100.svg civil ensign – Flown on private vessels (fishing craft, cruise ships, yachts, etc.).
FIAV 000010.svg state ensign – Flown on unarmed government vessels.
FIAV 000001.svg war ensign – Flown on warships.

In practice, a single design may be associated with multiple such usages; for example, a single design may serve a dual role as FIAV 001001.svg war flag and ensign. Even with such combinations, this framework is not complete: some countries define designs for usage contexts not expressible in this scheme such as air force ensigns (distinct from war flags or war ensigns, flown as the national flag at air bases; for example, see Royal Air Force Ensign) and civil air ensigns.

Other symbols

Other symbols are used to describe how a flag looks, such as whether it has a different design on each side, or if it is hung vertically, etc. These are the symbols in general use:

  • IFIS Normal.svg Normal or de jure version of flag, or obverse side
  • IFIS Proposed.svg Design was proposed in the past, but never officially adopted
  • IFIS Reconstruction.svg Design is a reconstruction, based on past observations
  • IFIS Reverse.svg Reverse side of flag
  • IFIS Variant.svg Design is an acceptable variant
  • IFIS Alternate.svg Alternative version of flag
  • IFIS De facto.svg De facto version of flag
  • IFIS Two-sided.svg Flag has different designs on its obverse side and its reverse side
  • IFIS Sinister.svg Obverse side meant to be hoisted with pole to the observer's right
  • IFIS Authorised.svg Design officially authorized to represent nation by government of that nation
  • IFIS Historical.svg Design used in the past, but now abandoned (this symbol is not part of Smith's original set)
  • IFIS Mirror.svg Reverse side is mirror image of obverse side
  • IFIS Equal.svg Reverse side is congruent to obverse side
  • IFIS No reverse info.svg Information on reverse side is not available
  • IFIS Vertical normal.svg Flag can be hung vertically by hoisting on a normal pole, then turning the pole ninety degrees
  • IFIS Vertical rotated.svg Flag can be hung vertically by rotating the design first
  • IFIS Vertical unknown.svg Vertical hoist method of flag is unknown
  • IFIS Vertical inapplicable.svg Design has no element which can be rotated
  • IFIS Vertical exclusive.svg Flags can only be hoisted vertically


  1. For example, 36 US Code §176 provides: “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”
  2. "Flying flags upside down". 30 September 2006. Archived from the original on 19 May 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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