The vexation of vexillology . . . or name that flag!

I’m no Sheldon Cooper (thank goodness!), but I do find flags fascinating. There’s more to flags than just colored pieces of cloth fluttering in the breeze.

Indeed there’s a whole world of interesting vexillological facts out there waiting to be discovered. Vexillology is the study of flags.

I’m no vexillologist. By no means, but I do have more than a passing interest.

Flags are symbols of national pride. In the UK we don’t fly the Union Flag (Union Jack is its name when flown at sea) very much, only on government buildings and the like, or special occasions. It’s rare to see the flag flying from residences. However,in my many visits to the USA however, I’m always surprised at just how many households fly the Stars and Stripes on a daily basis.

The largest flags I’ve ever seen were being proudly flown in the center of Mexico City and outside government buildings in Brasilia.

L: raising the national flag of Mexico in El Zócalo, Mexico City; R: the national flag of Brazil flying over the Praça dos Três Poderes in the center of Brasilia. Source: Wikipedia.

Source: HuffPost

Many countries have a strict code about how, where, and when flags can be flown. When I moved to Peru in 1973 I was surprised to discover that it was a legal obligation to fly the national flag from every building on independence day, 28 July.

In the UK we are much relaxed about how the image of the national flag can be used and reproduced on merchandise and the like. Who doesn’t remember the Union Flag outfit worn by Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell in the 1990s?

Across The Pond, how many Americans were impressed by their President groping Old Glory? You can grab it by the flagpole.

Source: Metro News

Flags are, however, increasingly one of the most visible manifestations of a virulent authoritarian far-right nationalism that is re-emerging in so many European countries and elsewhere around the world. Watch any news broadcasts that report demonstrations of organizations like the English Defence League and you will see the English Cross of St George on display in abundance.

Source: BBC

In their hands, the English flag has become a symbol FOR hate and intolerance. In this way they emulate the symbolism of the swastika and abundant flags at the Nuremberg Rallies during the Nazi rise to power in post-First World War Germany, almost a century ago.


There’s so much to learn about flags. So, how did I come to take more than a passing interest?

It began in the early 1990s when I was head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI in the Philippines, with responsibility for the International Rice Genebank, the largest genebank for rice in the world.

On joining IRRI in 1991, I was amazed (and somewhat dismayed) at the number of visitors who came to the institute and were shown around the genebank. The way these visits were managed was not sustainable, because they were a constant interruption to the important workflow of the genebank, and a potential threat to the long-term security of the seeds themselves.

We needed to improve how we showed visitors the importance of rice genetic resources and the role of the genebank. So, in addition to improving the infrastructure of the genebank, we set about designing a better visitor experience. I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘tourism’ of genebanks.

Around 1994 (if memory serves me well) we held an Open House for institute employees and from the wider Los Baños academic community, an event that proved very successful, attracting more than 1000 visitors during the day.

One of the displays—and still in use today more than 20 years later—was a wall-mounted world map, with the countries shown by different rice seeds. We needed flags for each of the countries, and in the early 1990s, the internet resources that we rely on today were just not available. However, I happened to make a visit to UNDP in New York, that has its HQ just across the street from the UN Building overlooking the East River in Manhattan. After my meetings (I was trying to raise funds to support a germplasm exchange network, INGER) I decided to cross the street and visit the UN. In the gift shop I came across a large wall poster showing all the flags of UN Member States, which I duly purchased. We cut out all the flags and pinned them to our rice map.

Former head of the Genetic Resources Center (and my successor), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton explains the work of the International Rice Genebank to Bill Gates during his visit to IRRI in April 2015. Credit: IRRI


When Klaus Lampe became Director General in 1988 he decided that the institute’s donors should be recognised by flying their flags on the buildings surrounding the ornamental pond, which can be seen in the image below.

I notice things. I can’t help it. Either something is right or it’s not right. One day, almost a couple of decades ago, as I came out of the admin building I noticed that one of the flags flying proudly didn’t seem quite right. It was the flag of Japan, one of IRRI’s most important donors and partners.

IRRI was flying the 1870 flag (the lower flag the image below) and not the 1999 version.

As you can see, the dimensions of the two flags are slightly different, 2:3 in the upper 1999 flag, and 7:10 in the lower 1870 version. While the size of the crimson disc, symbolizing the sun, has the same dimensions relative to the height of the flag, it is centered in the 1999 flag, but very slightly towards the hoist (on the left in this image) in the 1870 example.

I just knew that what I had seen online was not the version on display.

In developing our donor database in the Office for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) we wanted to show donor flags. Looking online, I came across two interesting sites

from which we could download jpeg or gif images of each of the flags. And on both sites there is a wealth of information about the history and design of all the flags. These are websites where it’s possible to become quite distracted and ‘waste’ a lot of time.


Some flags are instantly recognisable, and among those must sure rank the Union Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the flags of Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example.

The flag of Nepal is unique. It’s the only flag that is not a rectangle, but instead based on two separate pennants.

Others are quite similar to one another, both in design and colors. Some have vertical stripes, others horizontal. The combination of colors is the same, or almost so. And two countries have identical flags. But which ones?

Can you name these flags? Answers (left to right) at the end of the blog.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Do take a look at the flags websites I have listed. In particular the historical details on the Flags of the World are fascinating indeed.


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