Vexillology is the study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags. While it is a tough word to pronounce, vexillology is certainly an interesting field of study. Someone who studies flags is a vexillologist and someone who designs flags is a vexillographer.
Derived from the Latin word vexillum , the Romans used this term to refer to a kind of standard with a fabric hung from a horizontal crossbar on a pole. It is the nearest equivalent in the classical languages to what we call a flag today.
The term vexillology was born in 1957 by United States scholar, Whitney Smith Jr. (February 26, 1940 – November 17, 2016) and first appeared in print in 1959. Smith went on the co-found “The Flag Bulletin,” the world’s first ever journal dedicated to flags in 1961. One year later he established the official Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Smith went on to organize the First International Congress of Vexillology with Klaes Sierksma in Muiderberg, Netherlands in 1965. Both Smith and Sierksma joined Louis Mühlemann in founding the International League of Vexillologists and were members of its Governing Board from September 1965, and operated until September 1967. The league was replaced by the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (known by its French acronym FIAV) with Smith as vice-president of the Provisional Council as of September 3, 1967. In 1969, Smith moved from being FIAV Provisional Council vice-president to being the first Secretary-General of FIAV. Smith was also responsible for founding the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) and the Flag Heritage Foundation.
Smith wrote 27 books on the subject of flags including Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, The Flag Book of the United States, and Flag Lore of all Nations. Smith was the designer of the national flag of Guyana (pictured below) and served as a vexillographer to a number of governments and organizations. Smith was also part of the committee that developed the flag of Bonaire.
Smith described the process of creating a design that is appropriate to the subject of a flag with Britannica, stating “The best symbols should have a clear meaning. The essential idea is to create something pleasing but also significant” – Flags of the World: 5 Questions for Vexillologist Whitney Smith Encyclopedia Britannica Blog June 2011
Since World War II, interest in flags has expanded beyond their creation and use. Political scientists, historians, sociologists, and others recognize them as artifacts, expressions of the cultures of certain times and places. Learning about flags is fun (just ask Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory on CBS) and connects to such a wide range of other things to learn: art and design, history, politics, cultural geography, religion, law.
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