Ensign (n.)

US Navy Ensign shoulder insignia

This post is simply a nerdy meandering around the word “ensign”. Those who know me, will know why I have this interest.

Ensign” travelled to English like this: Latin (insignia) –> Old French (enseigne) –> Scottish –> English

Already in the 1100s the Old French word had two uses:
(a) mark, symbol, signal
(b) flag, standard, pennant

Then in the 1510s the English word “ensign” was used for the soldier who carries the army’s flag. (Later jokingly called “being a target”). The rank, “ensign”, was first used by the French Army and is still used as the lowest rank in the French Navy. In the US, our first ensigns served in the Army as junior infantry officers and from 1862, Naval Academy graduates (“passed-midshipmen”) were given the grade of “ensign” which, by then, was the equivalent of Army second lieutenants. I have posted the Navy officer shoulder insignia for an “Ensign” to the right.

I started my explorations today when I happened upon a post illustrating countries with similar flags. I did not know that so many flags looked similar. See here Johndcook.com.

It was then that I learned that “ensign” has the meaning of “flag”. This started me wondering about the naval rank of “ensign” and what sort of flags naval ships fly. I wondered if these similar flags could be a challenge in identifying ships at sea. This investigation led me to the disappointing revelations that there are all sorts of “ensigns” on vessels. Here, “ensign” means the flag flown on a vessel to indicate nationality, BUT that ensign does not have to be identical to the country’s official flag. Flag information is so complex that in 1959 the word “vexillologist” was coined to mean someone who studies flags (Latin: vexillum: “flag, military ensign, banner”).

Almost all US government ships fly our national flag, except the US Coast Guard which uses a special ensign. Most other countries actually use a unique Naval ensign different (though similar) to their national flag. See Wiki pics here.


  • Wikipedia (of course)
  • Etymonline.com
  • A History of Sea Service Ranks (PDF)

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