Flags have been used in various ways over the centuries, not just for decorative reasons but also for purposeful functions. The system of signalling called semaphore, is a good example. Invented in 1794 by a Frenchman named Chappe, it involved spelling out words by positioning two movable arms on a machine. Although it was invented specifically for the French Army, the idea soon caught on and was used around the world. The idea was so simple that it was not even necessary to use a machine - anybody with two arms could send a message by semaphore – the holding of flags was introduced simply to make the signals clearer.
British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, famously sent a message using flags at the beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, shortly before dying in the battle itself. The flags spelled out the message "England expects that every man will do his duty."
In the past flags were also used for signalling on the railways. Nowadays modern railway signalling signs are based on the old flag signalling system. Unsurprisingly a red flag meant "Stop".
However, in spite of their uses for communicating information and instructions perhaps the best-known role of flags is as potent patriotic symbols – national flags.
National Flag Designs
The design of a national flag is never left to chance. National flags are carefully thought out and meticulously put together. Take the tricolour flag, for example. This is a popular design, adopted by many countries including Germany, Italy and France. Made of three horizontal or vertical stripes of different colours it does not seem very complicated. However, it’s simplicity is deceptive. Strict regulations stipulate how wide the stripes must be and whether the yellow (in the German flag, for example) is to be dark yellow, pale yellow or indeed, gold.
National Flag Meanings
The Union Jack’s distinctive design is made up of three separate flags: a red cross on a white field represents England (as it is the cross of St. George) and the white X on a blue background is the cross of St. Andrew and represents Scotland. The red X (known as a saltire) on a white field represents Ireland as it is reputed to be the cross of St. Patrick.
Japan’s red circle in the middle of a white rectangular background represents the sun. The flag’s official name is Nisshoki but is more commonly known as Hinomaru.
The design of the USA’s flag is based on it’s history. The thirteen red and white horizontal stripes represent the original thirteen colonies that fought for independence and the fifty white stars on a blue field represent the 50 states of modern America. It is known as the "Stars and Stripes" or the "Star-spangled banner".
see also: National flags serve no purpose these days
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, famously sent a message using flags at the beginning of the __________ of Trafalgar in 1805.
2. The flags spelled out the message, "England __________ that every man shall do his duty."
3. The design of a national flag is __________ left to chance.
4. Strict __________ stipulate how wide the stripes must be.
5. The white X on a blue background is the cross of St. __________ and represents Scotland.
6. The Japanese flag’s official name is __________ but it is more commonly known as Hinomaru.