Nov. 14 (Thursday)

The Study of Flags
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Flags, coats of arms and seals are the most familiar symbols of state (unless you consider names and nicknames symbols). All nations are represented by flags, and most have official coats of arms as well. Many subnational entities, such as states and provinces, are similarly represented by flags, and many also have official coats of arms or seals. Some have all three.

GeoSymbols has separate articles about flags, coats of arms and seals. This page is both an introduction and an overview, explaining how they relate to each other.

Brazil’s national flag

Flags can be generally thought of as large, usually rectangular pieces of fabric with a distinctive design designed to be publicly displayed, whether flown from a flagpole or hung on a wall. Flags have traditionally functioned as symbols and signaling devices. They were long used in warfare to identify combatants and to direct and rally the troops. Flags have similarly been used to indoctrinate and control people. For example, people are encouraged or even forced to salute the flag or recite a flag pledge in some countries.

Botswana’s coat of arms

Coats of arms (arms for short) are generally smaller than flags. They were originally painted on shields to identify individuals or families, especially members of the aristocracy. Eventually, arms came to identify places, including countries. Almost all nations have coats of arms as well as flags, which evolved from arms. Canada’s provinces and territories and Australia’s states are also represented by coats of arms. Today, coats of arms typically function similar to corporate logos, with various nations and other political entities displaying their arms on official documents, web sites and even tourist literature.

Colorado’s state seal

Seals are generally circular in form and very small – just a few inches across. Originally stamped on letters, envelopes and containers, they have evolved to function similar to coats of arms, serving as what might be called political logos. While most nations are represented by coats of arms, the United States is represented by an arms and seal both. Each of the fifty U.S. states also has a seal. (However, some states have coats of arms as well.)

So how do these three classes of emblems relate to each other?

The emblems that represent a particular country, state or province often share something in common. For example, the colors of a nation’s flag may be featured on that nation’s coat of arms. In other cases, elements from a coat of arms (or seal) may be featured on a flag. Some flags are emblazoned with an entire coat of arms or seal.

Mexico’s flag and coat of arms
(Above) Mexico’s national flag is a red, green and white tricolor with the coat of arms in the center. (Below) Ontario’s flag features only the shield from the province’s coat of arms.
Ontario’s flag and coat of arms
(Below) The United States’ national flag and coat of arms may look nothing alike, but take a closer look. Both feature the colors red, white and blue. The U.S. also has an official seal; it’s merely the coat of arms inside a circular design.
The United States’ flag and coat of arms

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