Flagging the flag
by Mellissa Martinez
Last week, I noticed the red, white and blue repurposed mailbox stationed outside of Claremont City Hall. Inscribed on the box were the words “Deposit Used Flags Here.”
For a moment, I wondered if this relic had been placed on the street for a 1950s movie set. Curious to see if people actually followed the US code, which states that the flag should be discarded in a dignified manner, I peered inside and, in disbelief, saw flags.
I realize that there might be a distinct generational difference in matters that dictate respectful treatment of the flag. Perhaps my parents take for granted that everyone knows to discard the flag with reverence, but I wonder if younger Americans are informed about appropriate flag protocol. The current controversies surrounding both the Confederate flag and the US flag being “stomped on” in what is known as the Eric Sheppard Challenge have brought attention to our strong emotions associated with the flag. Tomorrow’s Independence Day celebrations might be an occasion for us to contemplate our deeply entrenched feelings.
Readers may wonder why a language column would broach such a topic. The answer is straightforward—human interpretation of symbols has long been considered within the field of linguistics. The study of signs and symbols, known as semiotics, first emerged from the work of Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Along with American philosopher Charles Peirce, Saussure sought to better understand the relationship between physical signs, the objects they refer to and the role of the human interpreter.
In semiotics, a symbol is defined as a sign that does not have a direct link to meaning. In other words, the meaning is determined solely through interpretation of the viewer, who draws on cultural or personal experience. This may explain why it is difficult to turn the other cheek when we see a flag associated with hatred being flown on government property. In the same vein, many experience rage when the US flag is defaced. Perhaps it is exactly this unavoidable human response that prompts hate groups and extremists to use the flag as a vehicle for protest.
As a child, I watched the popular television show The Dukes of Hazzard. I had no idea that the Confederate flag painted on top of the famous orange car, General Lee, represented the subjugation of an entire race of people. I wonder now, did a more culturally aware child recognize the symbolism? Did my African American friends recoil at that show? Although I can’t say at what point I became aware of the not-so-nuanced history of the Confederate flag, I now cringe when I see it, filled with a feeling of embarrassment and fear. A distinct feeling of shame is now associated with those lazy afternoons laughing at the sitcom.
Although flags of all stripes are deeply embedded in human culture, they are all open for interpretation. Last year, an international student came to my office in disbelief. He had always heard that Americans were patriotic and so he couldn’t understand why we were wearing iterations of the flag in the form of bathing suits, T-shirts and baseball caps. In his country, wearing the flag in such a way was considered the desecration of a sacred symbol. I explained that in the US, many wore some allusion to the flag as a sign of patriotism and maybe nationalism, meaning no disrespect to the flag.
First recorded in English, the etymology of the word ‘flag’ is uncertain. It exists in most modern Germanic languages including Danish flag, Swedish flagga, Dutch vlag and German flagge. One theory is that it originated from the Dutch vlaggheren ‘to flutter or flicker.’ In this case, it would be an onomatopoeic formation from the sound generated from flapping in the wind. Another theory says that the word is of English origin from flage ‘square, flat cloth,’ recorded in 1139 as a word used for infant clothing.
Whatever its origin, one thing is for sure: over the years, the flag has come to mean much more than a simple piece of cloth or the sound made by material flapping in the wind. Depending on one’s cultural, religious or racial association, feelings ranging from love to hatred, pride to embarrassment, and from elation to disappointment are regularly inspired by this powerful symbol.