“Vexillology”: it’s a word you may see on a list of hobbies, and unlike a lot of Latinate vocabulary, it doesn’t give a clear indication of exactly what it means. Vexillology is the study of flags, which have symbolized nations and groups of people for centuries. It’s also a fascinating hobby or special interest that can teach you about art, symbolism, geography, and history as you pursue more and more specialized knowledge. In this guide to what you should know about vexillology, we’ll examine its history, its components, and what you can do with this new interest.
It’s Old and New
The paradox of vexillology is that, while flags have been a part of civilization for so long, the formal study of them is only a recent development. The word itself was not coined until 1957, when scholar Whitney Smith fused the Latin vexillum, or “small sail,” with the familiar Greek –logia, meaning “study,” effectively becoming the world’s first vexillologist. In this position, Smith established a biannual International Congress of Vexillology for scholars and hobbyists alike.
Think of vexillology as an outgrowth of heraldry, the well-established design and study of family crests and coats of arms. Heraldry has always been eminently concerned with the use of color, even going so far as to refer to familiar colors by names specific to heraldry, such as argent for white, azure for blue, and or for yellow or gold. In vexillology, colors are rife with symbolic value, such as white as a symbol of peace or green as a symbol of a nation’s commitment to Islam.
Plenty of Terminology
Like any specialized field, vexillology uses a glossary of terminology that enthusiasts will need to use not only to discuss the more particular aspects of flags but also to signal one’s position in the vexillological community—think of deployment of vocabulary as, in its own way, flying one’s flag. Fortunately, the terminology isn’t too hard to pick up. A canton is a separate field in the corner of a flag, such as the navy-blue field with fifty stars on the American flag. Hoist and fly are the sides adjacent to and away from the flagpole, respectively. And you’ll want to know your crosses—a saltire is an X-shaped cross such as that on the flag of Scotland, while the Nordic cross is the slightly offset cross on the similar flags of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland.
How Can I Use My Vexillology Knowledge?
Unfortunately, there’s not exactly a bright future in licensed professional vexillology. However, the study of flags can be a useful adjunct to an academic career in geography or political science. Even beyond academia, you can find it to be a rewarding hobby. As you start determining what you should know about vexillology, you’ll find a welcoming and lively community of fellow flag enthusiasts.