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union jack

Jack and the Flagpole: what do you call the British national flag?

Travelling around Britain, as I’ve been doing this week, I have been struck, as anyone would be, by the profusion of national flags. Not only are they to be found draped on cars and pinned in bedroom windows this year, the British flag is also being displayed on civic flagpoles, high-street lamp-posts, and pub-signs, and can be seen hanging as bunting across shop windows and village greens. I have seen the British flag projected at night onto an office block, hanging from prams and a Zimmer frame, worn as hats, T-shirts, and ties, as dresses, and lingerie, and tattooed onto every visible body part.

The Union what?

The flag is everywhere, so it’s funny really that we can’t agree about what to call it. I was brought up in Britain and British English is my native language. The name that comes first to my tongue is Union Jack, and I believe that this is true for nearly everybody. Actually I believe it’s true for everybody, I just put in that nearly to cover myself. But here’s the thing, I was taught at school, where you do, after all, go to learn things, that the ‘proper’ name for the flag is the Union flag and that you should only call it a Union Jack if you’re flying a little version from the ‘jack’ of a warship, which, being schoolchildren, we never would be.

I know that if I were to say ‘Union Jack’ in any group larger than say a dozen, there will be one person who will to pipe up ‘it’s the Union flag’. This appears to be true for groups drawn from all parts of the Kingdom, from all social classes, and all ages over about seven.

Our dictionary here doesn’t come down on one side or the other: people genuinely use both so we define both. Nevertheless the main entry is at Union Jack, with Union flag being defined simply as ‘another term for Union Jack’.

“It don’t mean jack”

A jack is a ship’s flag which is smaller than the ensign, and which is used at sea as a signal, or as what Oxford English Dictionary describes as ‘a mark of distinction’. Specifically it’s the small flag which was once flown from the spritsail topmast head and then later from the jackstaff at the bow of a vessel. The flag is used to show which country a ship comes from, so we get not only the British (Union) jack, but also the Dutch jack, the French jack, and the jack of any sea-going country you like. Notice that the jack-staff is named after the jack (flag) and not the other way round. Even the most pedantic people can get that wrong.

We’re not sure why the little flag is called a jack. Probably it’s because jack – coming from the name, Jack – was sometime used to indicate smallness, and the jack was a small flag. For the same reason, the small white ball that you aim at in bowls is called a jack. A jack-brick (also called a brick-bat) is a small brick used to fill in at the end of a row, so that you can have the bricks overlapping; a jack-snipe is a small species of snipe; and jack was added to the name of a bird originally just called a daw to make jackdaw because the jackdaw is one of the smaller members of the crow family.

Alternatively, it might be that the flag sense of jack comes from a jacket, or jack, which was emblazoned with the cross of St. George. Or maybe the flag is named after the monarch who invented it, James (Jacques in French) VI of Scotland and I of England, who originally united Scotland, Wales, and England.

Calling a flag ‘a flag’

My own impression this summer has been that sports commentators are divided 50:50 over whether to say Jack or flag. The dreadful thing is that whenever I hear flag I wince and think, ‘that’s a bit pedantic’. But when they go for Jack I hear an inner voice saying ‘it’s supposed to be flag’.

If you’ve followed this closely you’ll realise that the jack in Union Jack is actually short for jack-flag. So I might start calling it the Union Jack-flag, which should upset both camps and get me a reputation for uber-pedantry which I would be only be able to retain if I knew which way up the flag was supposed to go. They didn’t teach me that at school.

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