Union Jack

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The Royal Navy, sailors and pedants distinguish between two common terms: the Union Jack and the Union Flag. (Either may be written with or without capitals.) In everyday speech, the two are interchangeable - and Union Jack is by far the more common name for the symbol of British nationality, the 'red, white and blue'. Readers of AWE should use it, unless writing precisely about the sea, naval history and so on.

The design symbolizes the United Kingdom, being composed of the red cross of St George, for England, originally on a white background; on top of the white saltire (diagonal cross) of St Andrew, on a blue background, for Scotland; and the red saltire of St Patrick, for Ireland - now only northern Ireland. This has been the design of the flag since the Act of Irish Union of 1801. From 1603, when the crowns were first united, it had simply been the red cross of St George on top of the white cross of St Andrew, whose blue background was the background of the whole. In 1603, James VI and I issued a decree that his subjects should "beare in their main-toppe the Red Crosse, commonly called St. George’s Crosse, and the White Crosse, commonly called St. Andrew’s Crosse, joyned together according to the forme made by our heralds" ( Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1904 [1986]). The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopaedia of Armory. London: Bloomsbury Books. p. 399, cited wikipedia).

The distinction as observed by pedants is a very precise one:

  • The Union Flag is a flag (piece of cloth intended to fly from a mast or similar) with a red, white and blue design symbolizing British nationality.
  • The Union Jack is restricted to a flag flying on a mast. Before it is hoisted, and in store, etc, the naval term is Union Flag.
OED says that the Union Jack is "Originally and properly, a small British union flag flown as the jack of a ship", and adds (s.v. jack, n.4) that a 'jack' is "A ship's flag of smaller size than the ensign, used at sea as a signal, or as a mark of distinction; spec[ifically] the small flag which is flown from the jack-staff at the bow of a vessel (formerly at the sprit-sail topmast head), and by which the nationality of a ship is indicated, as in British jack, Dutch jack, French jack."
OED's further explanation: "In British use the jack has been since the 17th c[entury] (except under the Commonwealth) a small sized ‘Union Flag’ of the period [...], which has also been, since 1707, inserted in the upper [quarter] of the ensign; hence, the name ‘union jack’ is often improperly applied to the union flag itself, when this is not carried or used as a jack."