Vexillology is the study of flags. This discipline is usually considered to be a branch of heraldry, although vexillology can also involve history and psychology, among other disciplines. Someone who studies flags is known as a vexillologist, while someone who designs flags is a vexillographer. Vexillographers are often members of heraldic organizations, using their heraldic knowledge to create meaningful flag designs.
This tongue-twisting term was coined in the 1950s by a vexillologist who apparently chafed without a specific term for his field of study. It is derived from the Latin word vexillum. A vexillum is actually a specific type of flag, and unlike modern flags, it is designed to be hung on the vertical and carried with a spear, rather than being hung from a pole. The term vexillum was also used in Roman times to describe a group of men gathered under a flag.
A big part of vexillology is the study of historical flags, and the analysis of the symbols and colors used in flags. Many flags bear a remarkable number of similarities, as in the case of the flags of the Scandinavian nations which bear version of the Nordic Cross in different colors. Red, white, and blue appear in the flags of many former English colonies, while flags of Muslim nations often integrate green, a color commonly associated with Islam.
People in the field of vexillology study the ways in which flags are used by civilians, governments, and military organizations both on land and at sea. Flags can be used to convey messages, as in the case of semaphore flags on ships, and they can also be potent symbols of national pride. Some vexillologists are interested in the psychological relationship between people and their flags, looking at how people respond to images of their flag and the careful rules surrounding flag handling which are used in many nations.
Vexillology may be a bit obscure, but it is important. A poorly-designed flag can send mixed messages or embarrass the person, organization, or country which it is supposed to represent, while a well-designed flag crisply conveys a message and sticks in the memory. Many people, for example, are familiar with the design of the Chinese flag, with simple gold stars against a red background, while the somewhat cluttered flag of St. Pierre and Miquelon leaves a bit to be desired, even if it is ripe with symbolic meaning.