• flag •
Pronunciation: flæg • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A banner (colored cloth) symbolizing something.
Notes: You would think that, used as a verb, this word would mean to wave proudly but, just the opposite: it means to hang limply or become weak and exhausted, as 'the conversation flagged toward evening'. As a transitive verb, it does mean "to use (as) a flag", as 'to flag a passing car' or 'flag an entry in an index'. The flagship of a fleet is the ship bearing the commander and the commander's flag. Flagship is also used to indicate the chief object of any group, as 'the flagship store of a chain'.
In Play: Flags are the symbols of nations, organizations, and military units, among others: "Many flags flew at half mast in New York when the Yankees lost the World Series." A lot of flags will be waving on the Fourth of July as the US celebrates the anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. But flags are being put to more questionable uses today: "The more conservative members of the racket club were offended at seeing Barry Noff in underwear made from a US flag."
Word History: The origin of today's Good Word is something of a mystery. The best guess is that the noun is based on the verb, which still meant "to flap about loosely" in 1545. This old sense of the verb turns up in Middle English flacken and Old Norse flögra "to flap about", both possible ancestors of flag, the verb. The sense of "go limp, droop" first turned up in the verb in 1611. We see the same shift in the related Latin words flaccus and flaccidus "limp, dangling", the source of English flaccid. The dots are all there; connecting them is another story.