Where Does The Term ‘Fallen Flags’ Come From?

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Are you a fan of The Big Bang Theory? Do you remember Sheldon Cooper’s hilarious “Fun With Flags” podcast? It’s a comedically inane spoof of those mindless YouTube shows. It’s all about vexillology.

You say you have never heard of the term?

Vexillology, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “the study of flags.” It comes from the Latin word vexillum, which translates to drape or flag. Vexillum itself derives from the Latin velum, meaning “sail.” At some point in the 1950s, someone attached “ology” to vexillum and—voilà!—vexillology.

It’s not clear where and when the word was first used. A 1968 UPI article that ran in several papers, quotes Nathaniel Abelson, then head of the United Nations’ library map department. Abelson claimed the UN’s terminology unit invented the term, but “acknowledges someone in Massachusetts came up with the same word about the same time.”

Could that “someone in Massachusetts” have been one Whitney Smith, Jr., who, as a senior at Harvard, was profiled in news articles across the country for his hobby of “vexillology”? At the time, Smith was considered such an expert on flags that encyclopedias retained him to check the accuracy of their flag entries. Certainly, a 2014 Fortune Magazine article credits Smith with coining the term.

When Smith died in 2016, his obituary in The New York Times explains how he invented the word in 1958 (the same year he published his first article on the subject). It also reveals the Harvard graduate once said he was criticized for the “barbarism” of combining Latin and Greek root words.

Nathaniel Abelson passed away in 1999. His obit in The New York Times fails to mention anything about Vexillology. It does say Abelson graduated from Yale. So that might explain his snide “someone in Massachusetts” comment in 1968.

But let’s get to the root of the root: vexillum.

What does the word actually refer to? To understand that, you need to understand a little bit about the Roman army. Yann Le Bohec, in the book The Imperial Roman Army, writes (on page 30), “For a particular mission such as fighting a war, engaging in work, or occupying posts, even at great distances, the garrison at Rome, the frontier army or the fleets could send detachments of varying size, sometimes called ‘vexillation’ vexillationes), sometimes numeri collati.”

Further explaining the naming convention source of these units Le Bohec says (also on page 30), “The name ‘vexillation’ is derived from vexillum, which designates the standard around which soldiers, who had left their original unit for a particular task, rallied.”

So, these Roman banners weren’t so much battle flags as they were markers where soldiers were to meet. This could be in a military campaign or a simple work project. Vexilli, (the plural of vexillum), therefore, weren’t necessarily used the way Hollywood makes it appear, with legionnaires marching them into battle. If we are to believe Le Bohec, these square flags were stationary.

Eventually, and in different parts of the world, armies and navies began flying their colors. During war, flags, rather than physical rallying points, represented a morale boosting rallying cry. Think of the role our flag plays in the Star-Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the battle firsthand, penned the poem that became the lyrics of our national anthem because of his heart-felt pride in seeing that the United States flag did not fall to the British.

Which gets us to the sense of “fallen flags.”

What does it mean to see your flag fall in battle? How should you respond? And what does that response mean?

In 1913, Sophie Lee Foster, State Regent, Daughters of the American Revolution in Georgia, compiled a list of “Reminiscences and Indian Legends” for the purposes of providing curriculum material to be adopted by school boards. Here’s one story:

“Under Sir Peter Parker, the enemy attacked Ft. Moultrie. Under the blue Carolina flag with its crescent and the word ‘Liberty,’ upon it, the patriots, with Col. Moultrie as leader, courageously resisted the attack. In this battle, the immortal Jasper braved the enemy’s fire in rescuing THE FALLEN FLAG and replacing it upon the fort. The splendid victory at Ft. Moultrie gave more confidence to the colonists and inspired them with new zeal.”

This gives you a real idea of the emotion evoked by a fallen flag.

If you think finding who first came up with the word vexillology was tough, try finding the first use of the term “fallen flag.” A scan of newspapers finds the earliest listed reference could be found on page 2 of the June 21, 1844 issue of The Evening Post where a correspondent writes, “We might conceive of a prince raving of a great naval engagement, for the purpose of raising the oft fallen flag of his country.”

Here we have an idea that a fallen flag refers more than simply a momentary loss within a battle, but a more permanent loss in war.

Combine the two and you can see how a fallen flag can become a rallying cry for the losing side.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to read this fascinating tidbit from the December 17, 1866 issue of the Buffalo Commercial on page 2:

“The Memphis Post tells a story greatly to the honor of a son of Gen. Lee. At a dinner party in Richmond, one of the guests proposed as a toast, ‘The Fallen Flag.’ It says: ‘Col. Lee promptly placed his hand upon the glass and arose. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘this will not do. We are paroled prisoners. We now have but one flag, and that is the flag of our whole country—the glorious old stars and stripes. I can recognize no other, fight for no other, and will drink to no other.”

Today, we most commonly associate the term “fallen flag” with railroads that no longer exist. But the term could apply to almost anything that once was.

This week we introduce a new series in the Sentinel, courtesy of our prolific Paul Worboys. Under Our Shared History on page four, he’ll be writing about “Fallen Flags” that used to grace our community. He’s got a large inventory of ideas, but he’s more interested in the local fallen flags you’re most fascinated with.

Do you have any ideas? Email us and let us know.


  1. […] this and what does it mean to ‘rally around the flag’? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Where Does The Term ‘Fallen Flags’ Come From,” and find out that Hollywood doesn’t always get it […]

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