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It seems the pedants are wrong, and there is no correct distinction between ‘union jack’ and ‘union flag’

union_jackOver 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.

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One Response

  1. English grammar has always been a subject which causes dismay to the purists. The regional dialects often challenge grammatical correctness but they are fascinating. I knew an interesting character who could place someone within about 20 miles of their birthplace, if they had spent their childhood/youth in the same area. My own County has a dictionary of both words and meanings which sound like a different language to Oxford English. My grandparents on my mothers side were Suffolk born and lived their youth on the border with Norfolk. Grandmother would ask me to go to the village shop to bring her half a dozen ‘ heggs ‘ (eggs) and sometimes she announced that her ‘ hoys ‘ (eyes) were sore. The City of Hull has a unique dialect and my favourites are ‘ furn curls ‘ (phone calls) or ‘ err nerr ‘ (oh no).

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