A Salute to Flags

Flags cannot speak, but they all can tell stories. "National flags epitomize what a country stands for," says Whitney Smith, a flag designer and expert A well-designed flag "tells us about a people, their heritage, history, and environment."

Whenever political systems change, flags change. When democracy replaced apartheid in South Africa in 1994, a new flag was unfurled. Likewise, many Eastern European nations replaced their national banners after their transition from communism to democracy. Last year, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Gibraltar, Chechnya, Mweli, Seychelles, and Zambia altered or totally redesigned their flags.

The flag of the United States has been changed 26 times since Congress first adopted a symbol for the nation on June 14, 1777. Each time a new state joined the union, a star was added to the canton (the upper left-hand quadrant of a flag). For a while, a stripe was added, too, until this system became too unwieldy. In 1818, the American flag already had 15 stripes - and would have had to add four more, for new states. That's when Congress decided to go back to 13 stripes for the original Colonies and just add stars instead.

Motifs like stars are used in flags to identify states, islands, or provinces. Australia and Comoros use stars.

Dr. Smith studies the history and symbolism of flags. He calls himself a "vexillologist," a term he coined. It's from the Latin word vexillum, which was a Roman military flag.

Until 199, the Indian Ocean state of Seychelles was under a one-party rule, Smith notes. The flag of the ruling Seychelles People's United Party was adopted as the nation's flag. But when the country recently returned to democracy with multiparty elections, a new flag was adopted that incorporated the colors of the opposing political party.

Some countries drape themselves in new flags as a way to shed their colonial past. For instance, the Solomon Islands, like many former British colonies, dropped the Union Jack from its canton after it became independent in 1977. (The United States scrapped the Union Jack from its canton 200 years before - in 1777.) Britain's Union Jack is still common to many flags of the world today.

Flags usually offer their most important message in color. A color's message may differ from country to country, and from time to time. Red once stood for nobility and courage. Later, especially for communist countries, it meant "people power." The green in Niger's flag represents its lush vegetation; in Ethiopia's flag, green stands for hope.

Green is also associated with the religion of Islam, and many Islamic nations use green in their flags. Other Islamic symbols are the crescent and star. These symbols, present in the flags of such Islamic countries as Pakistan and Malaysia, are from the Turkish flag of the Ottoman Empire (c. 1300-1918), which ruled much of the Mideast. Islamic countries that opposed the Ottoman Turks - including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - avoid such symbols in their flags.

Not all flags are rectangular. Nepal's flag is a double pennant (two triangles). Some flags flown by ships are swallow-tailed. The Swiss flag is a square. Whatever the shape or size of a flag, however, its proportions are important. For example, every US flag must be 10 units high and 19 units long, whether the units are inches, feet, or stories. This proportion is called a flag's "aspect ratio," and is expressed as two numbers. For the US, it's 10:19. Qatar's flag is unusually long; its aspect ratio is 11:28. India's flag, like that of most countries, has a ratio of 2:3. The ratios ensure that a flag looks right. (Posters of the world's flags often make them all the same shape for the sake of convenience.)

With so many flags, it's not surprising that some look alike. Sometimes there is a conscious attempt to copy (such as the US flag and those of Liberia and Greece). Sometimes it's not on purpose. When the new red-and-white Indonesian flag was unfurled in 1945, it looked like the Polish flag - only upside down. It was also identical to the flag that had fluttered over Monaco since the 13th century. Only a shade of blue and the proportions of the flags separate the banners of the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Many new flags are very creative, says flag-expert Smith. The environmental organization Greenpeace has a flag showing a dove with an olive branch (symbol of peace) and a rainbow. It was inspired by the Biblical story of Noah and the flood.

The message behind flags has changed radically since the Middle Ages, when people carried flags that resembled totem poles. "They were once dynastic," Smith says. "They represented the kings or the royal family." They were military standards meant to symbolize conquest and instill fear. "Now they are a people's own expression of who they are, a reflection of their personality." Today, flags are symbols of pride.

* To find out more about flags, try these books: 'Flags and Arms Across the World,' by Whitney Smith (McGraw-Hill, 1980); 'Flag,' by William Crampton (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Flags change often; Internet sources are often more current. On the World Wide Web:


We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.