Over the weekend I saw a TV interview with a spokesman for the Flag Institute about the correct name for our national flag. I was expecting pedantry on a grand scale, but instead listened to a remarkably sensible and well-informed account. The pedantic myth that the term ‘union jack’ should only be used when it is flown from a ship, and that it should elsewhere be called a ‘union flag’ has no basis in history, it seems. King James I & VI commissioned a flag to represent the union of the crowns, at which time it was called ‘the national flag’ or simply ‘the flag.’ Naval ships then flew very small flags known as ‘jacks,’ and a ‘union jack’ may simply have meant a small version of the British flag. Historical usage shows no correct version, the spokesman told us, since the terms ‘union jack’ and ‘union flag’ were used interchangeably. Sometimes on ships they were called ‘union flags,’ and sometimes on land they were known as ‘union jacks.’ This parlance was common at both official and popular level. There simply is no ‘correct’ version; you can correctly use either.
I myself have always preferred ‘union jack,’ since that is now the name of the flag, whatever the historical origins of the term might have been. I am pleased to be reinforced by the knowledge that there were no historical origins either way, but I would have continued to call it the ‘union jack’ even if there had been, since that is now its name. As a writer I try to use language in a way that is accessible and can communicate, rather than to display erudition. I have some (permissible) oddities. I prefer skeptic with a ‘k’ because, like Fowler, I think the written word with a ‘c’ is too similar to septic. I prefer the optional -ize spelling because it seems to accord more with the pronunciation. But I am fundamentally anti-pedantic because I think language changes over time with use. It is sometimes worth making a stand when usage loses or blurs an important distinction, but English often tends through usage to establish slightly different meanings for what were once synonyms. Thus ‘celibate,’ which once just meant ‘unmarried’ has fairly recently diverged in meaning to refer to sexual abstinence. But (he said, starting with a conjunction for the second time) I see little point in correcting people for using language in the ways that other people use and understand it.
Filed under: Updates