Pedantry is flagging

flagOn Radio 4’s Broadcasting House this morning, Paddy O’Connell interviewed Graham Bartram, Chief Vexillologist of the Flag Institute. I enjoyed discovering that the study of flags has such a pretty name, but more than that, I relished their discussion as a masterpiece of linguistic myth-busting.

They were talking about the name of my country’s flag, widely known as the Union Jack, except among those who insist that the Union Jack flies only at sea and that on land it’s called the Union Flag.

O’Connell: So, the argument has been: the Jack flies on a specific ship on a specific place, and the Flag flies on land.

Bartram: Well, that’s what some people say, but in fact the two terms have been used throughout history completely interchangeably. There are royal proclamations that say Union Jack, there are royal proclamations that say Union Flag, and sometimes when they say Union Jack they’re referring to land, and sometimes when they say Union Flag they’re referring to sea. So I think it’s up to you to decide what you want to do.

Bartram quoted a couple of proclamations from James II in the 1660s, showing Jack and Flag used the same way.

They then moved on to the nature of the supposed rule that Bartram was debunking. O’Connell perfectly played the part not of the rule-monger but of the ordinary person who vaguely assumes that some sort of rule-mongering must be right. Much of what follows could have appeared in any number of conversations about correctness in language:

O’Connell: When did it become convention for vexillologists to prefer Jack and Flag as two distinct items, or two distinct designs?

Bartram: I think it’s probably in Victorian times that they actually decided, that certain vexillologists decided that it should properly be called one thing in one circumstance and properly called something else in another circumstance. I think the Victorians were very keen on having rules about everything.

O’Connell: Well, so are some of our listeners. What are you doing to these rules?

Bartram: We’re not doing anything to them, we’re just saying these rules are made-up.

O’Connell: By you?

Bartram: No, no. They’ve been made up by just people writing one thing in a book, and people then read it and say ‘that’s the law’ when in fact it’s not the law.

O’Connell: Are you seeking to do what the Oxford English Dictionary did with “literally”, which was to say we could use it figuratively? You’re backing the public: if they say Jack, that’s a Jack, or a Flag.

Bartram: We’re backing the fact that the flag has no official name, and you can call it a Flag or you can call it a Jack, and which one you use is entirely up to you.

Towards the end of the programmes, O’Connell put a few listeners’ points to Bartram, including this one:

We need to know the difference between the Union Flag and the Jack because it’s useful to know how knowledgeable someone is to get an idea of whether they know what they’re talking about.

Bartram basically repeated himself. But this is the purest expression I’ve ever seen of pedantry as social ideology: that observance of fiddly little so-called rules is a marker of status.

As I’ve said before, the right way to be right is to find out the facts.

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  • Harry Campbell  On October 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Indeed. But what’s interesting, in a depressing kind of way, is how the media, even as they debunk linguistic myths, reinforce the stupid ignorant attitudes that foster them. The term “union jack” has now been “officially” allowed, according to Radio 4 — though what if any official status the flag-spotters have is not clear to me — just as the loose sense of “literally” has (as they see it) been granted a kind of royal pardon by the OED. At all costs, language must be policed, or civilisation will totter.

  • Jonathon Owen  On October 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    It always amazes me how resistant people are to the idea that a rule might never have had any validity. They may accept that a rule has changed or been abandoned, but for some reason they have trouble grasping the idea that a particular rule never should have existed in the first place.

    It’s as if, with some effort, you can get some people to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes now, but they still believe he was dressed the whole time.

  • gnaddrig  On October 15, 2013 at 9:30 am

    At the moment I am reading “Let The Dead Lie” by Malla Nunn, and in there I found the following bits:

    “Union Jack flags. Union Jack buttons…” An Indian street vendor cartet a bucket of coronation deorations along the pier and a few pages later Two Union Jack flags flew from a makeshift line strung across the front garden (…)

    Here “Union Jack” appears to be the name of the motive and “flag” the medium. Maybe this is South African usage, or possibly Australian, I wouldn’t know.


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