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The noun ensign has several (related) meanings of which only one is current, and that mainly in nautical circles. There are two distinct pronunciations. Its root is the same as that of 'sign', Latin signum 'sign'. The standard RP pronunciation, except in its current use in nautical circles, is 'EN-sign', IPA: /ˈɛn saɪn/.

  • In English, ensign is originally recorded as some means of identification in battle, as
    • a slogan, or rallying cry;
    • a visible badge or emblem,
      • and sometimes specifically a badge of office, or a heraldic coat of arms.
  • It then became specifically a flag of identification, and nowadays ensign is only used in British English as
the national flag born by ships to identify their nationality.

This is the only current use, outside historical writings, in British English. In British nautical use, it is pronounced 'ENS-'n', IPA: /ˈɛn sən/. British vessels wear one of:

    • the white ensign, reserved for vessels of the Royal Navy: a St George's Cross [red on white] with the upper quarter nearest the flagstaff filled with a Union Flag), along with boats belonging to licensed members of the Royal Yacht Squadron;
    • the blue ensign, (a blue flag, with the upper quarter nearest the flagstaff filled with a Union Flag) reserved for vessels of the Royal Naval Reserve and certain yacht clubs
    • Merchant Navy ships fly the Red Ensign (a red flag, with the upper quarter nearest the flagstaff filled with a Union Flag). (This is affectionately called 'The Red Duster'.)
  • In historic times, the identifying flags of armies on land were alo called 'ensigns'. The current term is standards, or in the British Army Colours. These usually belong to units smaller than armies, such as regiments or battalions.
    • From this, it became in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a term for the body of men serving under one colour.
    • Until the nineteenth century, it was also the man who carried the Colour, 'standard-bearer'. From 1600, this was always an officer, and the term became the name of the most junior commissioned rank in the infantry of the British Army. (The cavalry equivalent was cornet.) It was replaced in this function by second lieutenant in 1871.
    • Ensign is still the name used for the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the United States navy, and equivalent terms are current in the armed services of some other countries.