Vexillology - The Study of Flags

Facts and Information About Flags

Kiribati Flag
The Kiribati flag is unique with a yellow bird flying over a yellow rising sun, and the lower half is blue with three horizontal wavy white stripes to represent the ocean. Source: CIA World Factbook, 2007

Vexillology is the scholarly study of something seen very associated with geography - flags! The word comes from the Latin "vexillum," meaning "flag" or "banner." Flags originally helped ancient armies coordinate on the battlefield. Today, every country and many organizations have a flag. Flags can represent land or maritime boundaries and possessions. Flags are usually hoisted on a flagpole and flown so that everyone can be reminded of the values and history of the country. Flags incite patriotism and respect for those who lost their lives fighting for its values.

Common Flag Designs

Many flags have three vertical (pales) or horizontal (fesses) divisions, each of a different or rotating color.

France's Tricolore has vertical divisions of blue, white, and red.

Hungary's flag has horizontal bands of red, white, and green.

The Scandinavian countries all have crosses of different colors on their flags, representing Christianity. Denmark's flag is the oldest flag design still in use, as it was designed in the 13th century.

Many flags, such as Turkey, Algeria, Pakistan, and Israel have images of religious symbols, such as crescents to represent Islam.

Many countries in Africa have green, red, black, and yellow on their flags, representing people, bloodshed, fertile land, and hope for independence and peace (for example - Uganda and the Republic of the Congo).

Some flags show national coats of arms or shields, such as Spain.

Vexillology Is Based on Colors and Symbols

A vexillologist is someone who designs flags. A vexillographer studies flags and what their shapes, patterns, colors, and images represent. For example, the flag of Mexico has three colors - green, white, and red, formed in vertical lines of equal size. In the center is a picture of the Mexican coat of arms, a Golden Eagle eating a snake. This represents Mexico's Aztec history. Green represents hope, white represents purity, and red represents religion.

Vexillographers also study the changes made to flags through time. For example, the previous flag of Rwanda had a large "R" in the middle. It was changed in 2001 (new flag) because the flag was largely seen as a symbol of the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Prominent Vexillologists and Vexillographers

There are perhaps two main authorities on flags today. Dr. Whitney Smith, an American, coined the term "vexillology" in 1957 when he was a teenager. Today, he is a flag scholar and helped create the North American Vexillological Association in the late 1960s. He runs the Flag Research Center in Massachusetts. Many countries have recognized his great abilities and asked for his help designing their flags. He was chosen to design the flag of Guyana in 1966. After studying the country's culture, economy, and history, he made green represent Guyana's agriculture, gold represents great mineral deposits, and red represents the people's great determination and love for their country.

Graham Bartram is a British vexillologist who designed the most commonly used flag for Antarctica. It has a light blue background with a white map of Antarctica in the center.

The United States Flag

The United States' flag has thirteen stripes, for the thirteen original colonies, and one star for every state.

The United Kingdom Flag

The United Kingdom's flag, called the Union Jack, is a combination of the flags of patron saints St. George, St. Patrick, and St. Andrew. The Union Jack appears on the flag of numerous other countries and territories, which were historically or currently are possessions of the United Kingdom.

Unusually Shaped or Designed Flags

Every country's flag is a quadrilateral except for Nepal's flag. It is shaped like two stacked triangles, representing the Himalaya Mountains and the two religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. The sun and moon represent the hope that the country will live as long as these celestial bodies. (Znamierowski)

Switzerland and the Vatican City are the only two countries with square flags.

Libya's flag is entirely green, representing Islam. It has no other colors or designs, making it the only flag like it in the world.

Bhutan's flag has a dragon on it. It is called the Thunder Dragon, which is the symbol of the nation. Kenya's flag has a shield on it, representing the courage of the Masai warriors. The flag of Cyprus has an outline of the country on it. Cambodia's flag has Angkor Wat on it, a popular historical attraction.

Flags That Differ on Their Front and Reverse Sides

Saudi Arabia's flag has a sword and the Arabic inscription for "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." Since the flag contains sacred writing, the reverse side of the flag is a duplicate of the front and two flags are usually sewn together.

The reverse side of Moldova's flag does not include the emblem. The reverse side of Paraguay's flag contains the treasury seal.

The flag of the U.S. state of Oregon has the state seal on the front and the reverse side includes a beaver.

States and Provinces

Each U.S. state and Canadian province has its own unique flag. Some flags are quite unique. California's flag has a picture of a grizzly bear, which represents strength. The state's flag also includes the inscription, "California Republic," referring to the short period of time that California had declared independence from Mexico.

Wyoming's flag has a picture of a bison, for Wyoming's agricultural and livestock heritage. The red symbolizes Native Americans and the blue represents landscapes such as skies and mountains. The state of Washington's flag has a portrait of President George Washington. Ohio's flag is shaped like a pennant. It is the only state flag that is not rectangular.

New Brunswick, a Canadian province, has a picture of a ship on its flag for its shipbuilding and seafaring history.


Flags have many similarities, but many are quite distinctive. Flags symbolize past struggles such as bloody quests for independence, present virtues and identity, and future goals of a country and its inhabitants. Vexillologists and vexillographers research how flags change through time, and how that knowledge can be used to make the world more peaceful and diplomatic, as many people are willing to die to defend their beloved country's flag and its values.


Znamierowski, Alfred. The World Encyclopedia of Flags. Hermes House, 2003.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Vexillology - The Study of Flags." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Richard, Katherine Schulz. (2021, September 8). Vexillology - The Study of Flags. Retrieved from Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Vexillology - The Study of Flags." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).