Defacing a Flag

I was watching Wales play New Zealand in rugby yesterday when I saw the New Zealand. That reminded me that New Zealanders had voted on changing their flag last year, and I hadn’t kept up with the result of the vote.

Seeing the old flag flying, I knew that they’d obviously voted to keep it, but I was curious for more detail, so I googled New Zealand flag. And that’s when things got really interesting…

The first result was a little information box which included a basic description, which read:

The flag of New Zealand is a defaced Blue Ensign with the Union Flag in the canton, and four red stars with white borders to the right. 

Defaced!? Obviously I was briefly surprised to hear it described that way, but I also quickly assumed that Google wasn’t recklessly insulting the flag. Instead, I guessed that in this case, to deface is a term with a different meaning from to disfigure/ruin when used in the context of vexillology.

Vexillology is the study of flags, and in vexillology, defacing refers to adding a symbol or image to an existing flag: in this case, adding the four stars of the Southern Cross to the Blue Ensign, a British flag often used in maritime contexts.

Like many specific areas of study, vexillology has its own specific jargon. Have a look at this description of New Zealand’s neighbours’ flag:

The flag of Australia is a defaced Blue Ensign: a blue field with the Union Jack in the canton (upper hoist quarter), and a large white seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star in the lower hoist quarter. The fly contains a representation of the Southern Cross constellation, made up of five white stars – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars. 

A lot of that might sound like gibberish, but most of the odd terms have pretty straightforward meanings. Defaced, in this context, we now know. The canton is the upper-left quadrant (where the stars are on the American flag). The hoist is the left half, and the fly the right. Because it flies in the wind I suppose, and the hoist is on the side where the flag is hoisted up.

There are plenty of other vexillological terms, but I won’t go through them (you can find them here if you’re interested). My main reason for not listing them is that, interesting though many of them surely are, how often are you going to need them?

Just as we might marvel at the curious terminology of heraldry (abased, couchant, rampant etc.), they’re words we’re never likely to use.

The Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are approximately 250,000 words which can be considered to make up the entirety of the English language. Yet most adults have a vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words.

Is this a criticism then of the degradation of the English language, and modern people’s inarticulate nature? Not at all. 20,000 words is more than enough to get by day by day. The vast majority of those 250,000 words are either outdated terms now replaced by synonyms, or technical terms only used by specific people in specific contexts. My vocabulary certainly increased greatly after becoming an English teacher and learning a number of linguistic terms.

So if you can’t tell a hoist from a fly, or a rampant lion from a couchant, don’t worry about it: you’ll probably never need to know. Of course if you come across such terms and are curious, go ahead and look them up: you might find out some fascinating new information. But the words you already have are probably enough.

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