I have neighbor who seems to think his shredded, tattered American flag is a sign of his patriotism. Heavy sigh. At least he's inspired this post. Flag is one of those delicious words etymologists aren’t 100% sure of. The noun form showed up in English in the late 1400s.
Some argue that flag may have come from Old Norse, flaga, a word related to flake, and referring to split stone. We see this meaning in the English word flagstone. The theory is that flagstones are flat & rectangular, a flag is flat & rectangular, voila! Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.
Another possibility is that flag comes from the Danish flaeg or Dutch flag. Both these words refer to a yellow iris &/or freshwater reed, things that flap about in the breeze, not unlike flags. Hmm.
The most likely connection (in my humble opinion) is to the verb flag, which predates the noun by a full century, & comes from Old Norse, flakka, to flicker, flap, or flutter. In the Old Norse term we can hear the onomatopoeia of fabric in a stiff wind. Etymologists in the flag-comes-from-flakka school of thought argue that the verb for flap or flutter naturally morphed into the noun for the item that flapped or fluttered.
Some other flag tidbits:
The verb to flag changed meaning in the early 1600s, from meaning flap, flicker flutter to meaning to go limp or droop.Perhaps a lack of winds inspired this change?
In the 1800s the verb, to flag collected another meaning, to stop or slow something. This grew out of the use of flags to slow or stop trains. Much later, in the 1980s, this term was applied to drinkers who’d had a bit too much & would no longer be served more booze.
In the 1870s, the term flagship was born, referring to a ship flying the flag of an admiral. Its figurative meaning arrived in the early 1900s.
The Arizona city, Flagstaff, was so named on July 4, 1876, when a very large flag was flown from a very tall tree.
So, does the verb-to-noun argument resonate best for you, or do you side with the flagstoners or iris-reeders? Or do you have something else to say about all this?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Wordnik & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.