Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, July 5, 2012



What with Independence Day, Americans have no doubt seen a good number of flags this week. 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.

In the 1500s, the verb fag was born of the verb flag, & like its source, meant to droop, decline, or tire.

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,, Wordnik & the OED.


  1. My favorite flag reference is from an Eddie Izzard performance. He talks about Columbus coming to America and confronting the natives. He claims their land as newly discovered for his Queen. The natives say; Well, not so newly discovered actually...we have lived here for many centuries. To that Columbus declairs; Yes you have a FLAG? Ha! Of course Eddie did it with much flair!

  2. When I was growing up in New England, some of the old people called irises "flags". I never knew why.

    I think I like your Old Norse fluttering theory best. Another fascinating examination of the complexities that lie beneath our everyday word usage.

  3. Hey again Christine & Anne,
    Thanks for popping by.
    Anne, I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing irises referred to as "flags." I suppose it had something to do with all those Hollanders & Danes who settled in Maine, or maybe it was a vestigial bit of English brought across the pond. Christine, one must wonder how different our world might be today had we not had the collective mindset to create things like flags to reflect "team" allegiance.