A vexatious vexillologist

You may be familiar with the backside of certain daily calendar pages. They can include an interesting fact, a puzzle, a riddle or, sometimes, just a question.

This one asked if the reader knew what a vexillologist was. No, definitely no. Not a word I’d ever come across though it sounded somewhat like me.

Well, there are those who’d call me vexing, even perhaps vexatious.

Searching the dictionary I discovered that vexillum was a military standard carried by ancient Roman troops. That indeed explains the source of the word for vexillologist is one who studies flags. Neat word, but what’s in a flag to study?

Turns out at its most basic, it’s simply flag identification. But it goes further into the history of flags, even their design (by vexillographers). Basing it on the Latin, a Dr. Whitney Smith came up with the word in 1957. Not content with inventing his own word, a few years later Dr. Smith founded the Flag Research Center and the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), going on to implement the first International Congress of Vexillology.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that NAVA has its own journal, Raven (I don’t know why that name), and, definitely not surprising, its own flag. That of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (FIAV) is a gold sheet bend knot on a medium blue background. In fact, NAVA has numerous subdivisions, founded by area, each with its own flag. That for Salem Mass. has 13 black and orange (they say red) horizontal stripes with a witch on a broomstick in the middle. Designed by Alfred Znamierowski (no, there will not be a quiz), it refers of course to the witchcraft trials and to triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number thirteen.

A vexillophile is one who simply likes, admires, or enjoys flags. I’m not sure personally I’d even go that far beyond feeling a tug on my heartstrings when I see the good ol’ stars and stripes waving in the breeze or carried proudly at the head of one of our many parades.

Since I was on the topic, however, what most intrigued me was the symbol for the Olympics. You know, those five rings. Turns out they were chosen to represent the five continents, but do not individually each represent any single continent. (OK, I can understand omitting Antarctica but I still come up with six others.)

Giving it very little thought I had presumed the five colors plus the white background represented all the flags in all the world. You know, the primary colors: red, yellow, blue and then green, and black. Allowing Salem its red, not orange, and discounting the current popularity of pink, perhaps they do.

What they did represent up to the time the symbol was chosen in 1931 was that at least one of the colors is on every national flag. The background, white, was definitely part of it, making six colors in all. I have to add that there are a great many shades used within those limited colors.

Why do we fly the red, white and blue? Again, allowing my ignorance to show, I presumed it was because those had been the colors of our mother country, the United Kingdom.

Actually the colors were first used by the Continental Congress on the Great Seal of the United States. And chosen to mean “hardiness and valor, qualities the new nation needed to stand up to the British government” (red), purity and innocence (white), and vigilance, perseverance and justice (the blue). On the other hand, George Washington said the red stood for the British colors, the white for getting away from Britain and the blue for the sky. I find that very little more convincing so who knows?

I can tell you that, next time you stand looking at our flag, take a double look at the star in the second row farthest to the right. That’s New York.

Long may she and all her siblings wave!

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” released in June. Copies are available at Papaya Arts on the Boardwalk in Dunkirk and the Cassadaga ShurFine. Information on all the Musings, the books and the author can be found at Susancrossett.com.