Today is Flag Day in the U.S. Betsy Ross is credited with creating our national emblem despite little historical evidence. But that hasn’t stopped us from setting aside a day to honor the Stars and Stripes—representing the shared ideals and values of disparate states.

The use of flags to identify a country or family goes back centuries. The earliest meaning of the word flag, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “something flapping in the wind.” A closely related meaning, “to flap loosely,” likely morphed into the meaning of “limp or listless” from which we get a usage like losing energy or sapped: His energy flagged in the intense heat and humidity.

The idea of flagging something to identify it as needing attention or to note its importance took hold. Editors flag errors. Conductors flag trains. Sports officials flag violations. A twentieth century usage means “to designate someone who will not be served more liquor.” The listless body and limp speech likely being the clue.

Other meanings of flag include a flat stone for paving, i.e. flagstone, as well as a plant that grows in marshy places like reeds or rushes. This latter’s connection to the original meaning of flag may stem from these plants fluttering in the breeze.

Not surprisingly, English has developed a number of idioms using flag—several even make use of the colors of the flag.

  • Raise a red flag or red flag: a signal of potential danger, alert to trouble ahead
  • Wave the white flag or strike the flag: a sign of surrender or defeat that originates with the military. A literal white flag was an indication of a truce or cease fire.
  • Wave the flag: a show of support for a person or cause
  • Drape yourself in the flag: a show of patriotism while avoiding the issues or difficult questions

And, of course, today it’s rally ‘round the flag day—an expression that originated with a Civil War song. Today is a day to display our patriotism. Our country is not perfect. But we still enjoy a level a freedom that many do not. If you have a flag, fly it today.

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