“Washington Crossing the Delaware” (Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), a detail of which is shown above, displays Old Glory, a flag folded but ready to be unfurled and brandished at the onset of the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776 CE, an opening gambit in the surprise attack against Hessian mercenaries who were clustered like German measles across the river in New Jersey.
Vexillology is the study of flags, from vexillum Latin ‘a banner carried by Roman troops,’ ultimately from the Latin verb vehere ‘to carry.’ The literal meaning then of vexillum is ‘little thing carried.’
The common combining form or suffix of scientific discipline names is -ology from Greek -logia ‘a study made up of words first spoken, then later in Greek history written down, a treatise,’ itself from the Greek λόγος logos ‘word, speech, words, discourse, reason ’ and ultimately from the Greek verb λέγειν legein ‘to speak.’
From the same verb comes our English word vehicle, literal meaning ‘small transport that carries things.’ The Latin verb stem of vehere lurks in other English words like convey, convex, invective, vector, vehement, and vein.
Do you know the English names for the parts of a flag?
The Parts of a Flag
1. STAFF. The pole from which a flag is flown.
2. CANTON. Any quarter of the flag, although it
3. FIELD. The largest area of a flag.
4. CHARGE. Any emblem or logo on the field.
5. HOIST. The part of the flag closest to the staff.
6. FLY. The part of the flag farthest from the staff.
The Vexillum of Saint Veronica
Vexillum has a special meaning in ecclesiastical history. It was a small linen banner tied to the top of a bishop’s crozier. The vexillum attached to such a pastoral staff was a sudarium (Latin ‘cloth for sweat’). A reasonable modern translation of sudarium would be the word handkerchief. This is perhaps a reference to Saint Veronica.
St. Veronica. Hans Memling. c.1480. Oil on wood. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Roman Catholics who know the Latin mass will remember that one of the 14 stations of the cross is sometimes called in Latin sudarium Veronicae or vexillum Veronicae. The sixth station of the cross commemorates the moment when a woman in the crowd watching Jesus carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion took pity on Christ and handed him her veil to wipe the sweat from his brow. After using it, Jesus handed the cloth back to Veronica and she saw that image of Christ’s visage had appeared on the cloth as a miracle.
The pious lady was only named much later. She was first known as Berenice (Macedonian Greek version of Greek Pherenike ‘bearer of victory.’ In spite of pious folk etymology, Veronica does not stem from Latin and Greek vera Latin ‘true’ + eikon Greek ‘image.’
Saint Veronica is the patron saint of photographers (!) and laundry workers.
Latin names for the stations of the cross are Via Crucis ‘way of the cross’ and Via Dolorosa ‘way of sorrows.’ Comic essayist S. J. Perelman referred to a shoddy summer house he once rented as the Villa Dolorosa.
Another word from the same root, obscure except in the study of Roman military history, is vexillarius, in English vexillary, a class of veterans in the Roman army, serving under a special standard. In Latin vexillarius is also a word for an ensign or standard-bearer.
In medieval miracle plays, sometimes called mysteries, a vexillator carried a banner naming one of the settings of the play and also sometimes speaking the prologue to the play.
Time now to flag other flag words.
Banner came into English from Norman French banere, after 1066 and all that. It is ultimately a Gothic word bandwa ‘token, sign’ that gives rise to several European terms like Spanish bandera and Italian bandiera.
My introduction to the word banner came when memorizing for recitation in Grade 8, Henry W. Longfellow’s rather jingly-jangly, kitschy-rhymed poem “Excelsior (1841).” The Latin title means ‘higher’ or ‘more forward-going.’ Longfellow borrowed it from the seal of the State of New York where it reposes as the noble motto. A poetic translation, spun out to a more pleasing semantic amplitude, might be “Strive Ever Onward!” It is a jolly good poem for young people to memorize because Longfellow’s thumping rhythms pound along merrily, making the thing quite easy to commit to memory.
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
‘Tis a maudlin tale our poet recounts. The ardent youth, ignoring warnings of the know-it-all villagers, climbs higher and higher into the shivering fastness of a storm-flailed mountain, carrying his stupid pole. Comes the dawn and Young Ardent is found frozen to death, stiffer than a defunct carp in January, dead in the snow, his youthful pinkies still clutching the pole and its now rather ironic banner ‘Excelsior.’ Death has been well dubbed ‘the great ironist.’ See the entire poem reprinted at the end of this column.
A plethora of gonfaloni and all manners of banners
A gaudy flag word indeed, borrowed by English knights from a word popular during the Italian Renaissance. It sounds better in Italian with that gentle /e/ at its end: gonfalone. It’s a banner that hangs from a cross-bar rather than being tied to a pole. A single-pointed or swallow-tailed gonfalon is still used in ecclesiastical troopings. Medieval Italian republics used them as banners.
From the greatest epic poem in English, Paradise Lost (1667 CE), here is John Milton’s use of the word to describe the ceremony of angel hoards summoned to the throne of god:
By present, past, and future on such day
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 5, lines 582-591)
A swallow-tailed gonfalon carried in a modern academic procession
Etymology of Gonfalon
Gonfalon is a reborrowing of the word from Italian gonfalone after a much earlier appearance in Old English as guthfana, later gonfanon, ultimately from Old Teutonic gunthja ‘war’ + fano ‘banner.’ With fano compare the modern German word for flag, die Fahne, one and the same. The most infamous use of the word Fahne in modern German history was as the opening line of the Nazi National Anthem (1930-1945), The Horst-Wessel-Lied (“Horst Wessel Song”). Die Fahne hoch means ‘the flag on high.’ The lyrics were written by one Horst Wessel, a Nazi activist in Berlin of not very great caution who was murdered by local communists. Propaganda poobah, Joseph Goebbels, decided to make the bumbling Horst the leading martyr of the Nazi Movement and did so. Since 1945, it is illegal in Germany to sing in public the Horst Wessel Lied. Dummer Horst hoch!
A burgee is a small sailing flag,a two- or three-cornered banner used by yachts as a distinguishing flag.
Ensign is what is left after the Latin neuter plural noun insignia ‘signs and signals’ passed through Old French into English. Ensign has several meanings, of which we are concerned with only a few. An ensign is a military banner, a body of men who serve under such a banner, and one who carries that banner, a standard-bearer. From ancient use as an infantry rank, ensign also became the name of a rank in the United States Navy, where an ensign is the lowest of commissioned naval officers.
A detail from a fresco depicting scenes in the life of Saint Francis of Assissi features banners and flags bearing the charge of a red cross, symbolic of help for the sick. This fresco is in the Bardi Chapel, Chiesa della Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
French Flag Words
Drapeau is the common French word for flag, from Low Latin drappus ‘piece of cloth.’ It is not a native Latin word but may be Gallic in origin. The Old French word drap came first, meaning ‘cloth material’; then the diminutive form of drap appeared, drapeau ‘little piece of cloth, flag.’ The word became an occupation name too; un drapeau was a cloth-merchant, and that gave rise to the French surname, Drapeau.
To make cloth was the French verb draper, from which arise English borrowings like draper, drapes and drapery. In America, the sense of woven cloth became specialized to mean one particular kind of cloth, namely, window-coverings or drapes.
L’étendard means ‘standard.’ It is historical and poetic French nowadays. For example, in the lyrics to the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” — “L’étendard sanglant est levé” ‘the little flag stained with blood is now held high.’
A porte-étendard is a standard bearer, that is, one who represents all that a political cause stands for.
Now, lest your spirit flag or your brio fizzle, must we egress, charged gonfalons aflutter in the spring breeze. But not before we stand and recite at the front of the class, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem.
The shades of night were falling fast,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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