Have you stopped to think about all the flags around the world and the meaning behind their design? Find out how to decipher 15 flags and discover their insane origins.
I was inspired to write this blog as I’ve seen my fair share of flags around the world in my travel and have always been interested in the history for their individual designs. For those of you who are fans of the Big Bang Theory TV show, you may laugh at the subject matter of this article, but I promise you this article is a lot less cheesy than Sheldon’s YouTube videos.
There are 195 independent countries in the world. Unless I’ve visited the country in question it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll forget what their flag looks like. In order to battle this, I made sure to include flags from countries I’ve yet to visit.
Like languages; symbols, colours, and patterns are also a form of communication. Sometimes their meaning is obvious, but oftentimes it’s very abstract. This is especially evident when it comes to the design and motifs featured on flags around the world.
Symbolism in Flags
Have you ever stopped to think about why there are so many countries that use red, blue, and white? Why are vertical and horizontal stripes used? Or why flags of African countries use a lot of black? Maybe not, but you’re about find out some interesting flag facts that will change all that.
This topic fascinates me, not only as a traveller but also as a designer. When designing I need to be aware of the colours I use. I need to ask questions like, what emotions does this colour evoke? Does it’s meaning translate into other cultures? For example, in China, Korea, and some other Asian countries, white is the colour of mourning and funerals, whereas in Western culture black is used. As a side note, the custom of wearing black clothing for mourning dates back to the Roman Empire, when the toga pulla, made of dark-coloured wool, was worn during periods of mourning. To further complicate things, when used in flags, colours take on a different meaning. For example, a yellow flag is a symbol of generosity and a white flag is a symbol of peace and honesty.
Why Were Flags Created?
So, where did flags originate? Used as a form of identification, flags were first used in battles both on land and at sea. Simple geometric shapes were key to a flag’s design because of their high visibility from a distance. This ensured soldiers could easily identify who was on their side or not.
In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was the leading naval power. Their simple, easily recognisable flag became a symbol of their power and wealth. In 1705, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia ordered the direct and deliberate copy the flag changing only the orientation of the stripes.
Where are Flags Used?
Today, flags fly in courthouses, classrooms, outside town halls, and in the crowds at major sporting events. We see them everywhere yet pay very little attention to the symbolic significance of their designs. I bet you never knew that the flags for Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are hoisted on the right-hand-side of the flag due to the nature of their national languages being read from right to left.
The study of flags is called Vexillology and comes from the Latin word vexillum meaning “flag” and the Greek suffix “-logy” meaning “study”. The word “flag” is derived from the old Saxon word “fflaken” which means to fly or to float in the air.
As mentioned earlier, choosing a colour used in a flag’s design is no accident. Let’s take a look and what they each represent.
Yellow – A symbol of generosity
White – A symbol of peace and honesty
Red – A symbol of hardiness, bravery, strength & valour
Blue – A symbol of vigilance, truth and loyalty, perseverance & justice
Green – A symbol of hope, joy and love and in many cultures have a sacred significance
Black – A symbol of determination, often reflecting the ethnic heritage of the people
With that in mind, here are 15 flags with interesting backgrounds.
1. United Kingdom
This design combines the crosses of the patron saints of England, Wales, and Scotland to create the Union Jack. Commonly known as the Union Jack or Union Flag, it was a maritime flag of Great Britain from 1606 to 1801. The design was ordered by King James VI and I to be used on ships on the high seas. On 1 January 1801, the design formally represented the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
This flag is one of the few that are older than the Union Jack, dating back to 1230. The legend that surrounds the flag involves Duke Leopold V of Austria. It is said that after returning from battle, his white battle dress was completely drenched in blood. Upon the removal of his belt, the cloth underneath was untouched, thus revealing the combination of red-white-red. Leopold was so captured by this sight that he adopted the colours and scheme as his banner.
During World War I many battalions featured a maple leaf on their insignia. But it wasn’t until 1964 when Prime Minister Lester Pearson formed a committee to have it formerly included on the national flag. Today it is also known as the “Maple Leaf Flag”.
The colours of the French Tricolore flag were inspired by the cockades used during the French Revolution. The Paris militia adopted a blue and red cockade. This cockade was presented to King Louis XVI but Lafayette (an aristocrat and military officer who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War) argued for the addition of a white stripe to “nationalise” the design. The vertical striped flag we know today has been France’s national flag since 1830.
5. South Africa
When the apartheid ended, South Africa adopted a new national flag in 1994 which was designed to symbolise unity. Over 7000 designs were rejected when a nationwide public competition was held in 1993. Even a few design studios were approached to solve the problem but without success. The winning design came from Frederick Brownell, who also designed the flag of Namibia. Initially the flag was commissioned for an interim of five years only, but remained the national flag after it was well-received.
The meaning of the South African flag design can be traced to the motto on the National Coat of Arms which reads ‘diverse people unite’ in Khoisan. The “Y” represents a merging of diversity within South African society.
The red, white and blue colours were taken from the colours of the Boer Republics. In 1925, yellow, black and green were taken from the African National Congress (ANC) flag. Black symbolising the people, green for the fertility of the land, and gold for the mineral wealth beneath the soil.
6. Antigua and Barbuda
In 1966, a national flag design competition was held in Antigua and Barbuda after attaining its independence from Great Britain. Reginald Samuel, a high school art teacher won the $500 first prize for the best design. The seven-point golden sun represents the dawn of a new era. The colour red represents the blood of slave forefathers and the dynamism of the people. Hope is represented by the colour blue, and black for the soil and African heritage. The “V” formed by the red borders represent “Victory at last.”
The Australian flag features a Union Jack, which, at the time was mandatory for all British Colonies. The five white stars on the right-hand-side represent the Southern Cross seen in the night sky all over Australia. These stars are named after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, in order of brightness in the sky.
The large seven-pointed star represents the six states of Australia and one point representing the territories.
The saffron colour in India’s flag denotes its leader’s renunciation of material gains. The white middle band indicates peace and truth, and the Dharma Chakra (“wheel of the law”) symbolises the life in movement and death in stagnation. The last band in green shows the fertility and growth of the land.
The national flag of Nepal is the only non-quadrilateral national flag in the world.
The flag was adopted after the unification of all the small principalities of Nepal. The blue border symbolises peace and harmony. Nepal’s national colour, red, indicates the brave spirits of the Nepalese people. The two triangles symbolise the Himalaya Mountains. The depiction of the sun and moon represents the hope that Nepal too will last as long as the sun and the moon.
The 27 five-pointed white stars on Brazil’s flag represents each of its states and the Federal District. Across the blue globe is a white banner which reads, “Ordem E Progresso,” and translates to “Order and Progress”. The star Spica, is the only one above of the white banner, symbolising Brazilian territory in the northern hemisphere and the State of Pará.
Yellow represents the country’s gold reserves and green symbolizes the great Amazon Rainforest and Atlantic Jungle.
11. South Korea
Before 1883, South Korea didn’t have a national flag. Korea’s traditional colour, white, represents peace and purity and was commonly worn by 19th century Koreans. The circle in the middle is derived from the philosophy of yin and yang and symbolises balance in the universe. The blue represents the negative cosmic forces, and the red, positive cosmic forces. The four black trigrams collectively represent movement and harmony. Each trigram symbolises one of the four classical elements, heaven, sun, moon, and earth.
12. Saudi Arabia
The Arabic inscription on the flag, called shahada, reads “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The green represents Islam and the sword symbolises the House of Saud (the founding dynasty of the country) which points in the direction of the script.
The colours on Botswana’s flag comes from its coat of arms. The blue symbolises water, which on the coat of arms reads “Let there be rain”. The black and white represent racial harmony while the stripes were inspired by the country’s national animal, the zebra.
Designed in 1940, the red in Vietnam’s flag represents revolution and bloodshed during the country’s fight for independence. The star represents the five main classes of Vietnamese society, intellectuals, farmers, workers, businessmen, and military personnel all working together to build socialism.
The flag of China was officially adopted in 1949. The red background symbolises the revolution and people of china. The larger gold star represents the Communist Party of China with four smaller stars surrounding it to symbolise the four social classes, the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie. The orientation of the stars further symbolises that unity should go around a centre.
Brazil / India Stripes / Saudi Arabia / South Korea / Nepal / Union Jack / Antigua and Barbuda / Flags and their meanings / Brazil / Flag Symbol / White / National Flags Meanings / Austria / White / China
Over to you!
Which other flags around the world do you find interesting? Which of these facts surprised you the most?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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