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Why Are Flags Flown at Half-Staff in Times of Mourning?

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The White House flag is flying at half-staff to mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela. This has become a well-recognized symbol of national grieving, but where did the tradition originate, and how does the decision to lower the flag work?

How did the tradition of flying the flag at half-staff get started?
It's tough to say, but the oldest commonly accepted reference to a half-staff flag dates back to 1612, when the captain of the British ship Heart's Ease died on a journey to Canada. When the ship returned to London, it was flying its flag at half-mast to honor the departed captain.

Why would these sailors lower their flag to honor their departed captain?
According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death. This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a "half-staff" flag exactly one flag's width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death's flag is flapping above it.

How long is the flag flown at half-staff in the United States?
It depends on whom the nation is mourning. Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the United States Code outlines strict guidelines for how long the flag is flown at half-staff following the deaths of various members of the government.

The death of a current or former president lowers the flag for 30 days, while the current vice president, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Speaker of the House receive 10 days of half-staff flying following their deaths.

Flags fly at half-staff from the day of death until the date of interment for cabinet secretaries, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, former vice presidents, and the governors of states. The death of a current member of Congress lowers the flag to half-staff on the day of death and following day.

Does the President have any leeway when he's making these orders?
Yes, the President can make an executive order lowering the flag to half-staff to honor the passing of other important figures or tragic events. For example, President George W. Bush ordered the flags flown at half-staff until the interment of Pope John Paul II. For Mandela, the flags will remain at half-staff until sunset on December 9.

With national tragedies, the length of time seems to be a bit more arbitrary. Following the September 11th attacks, Bush ordered the flag be flown at half-staff until September 16, 2001. The Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis in 2004 prompted flags to be flown at half-staff from a Monday through the end of the following Friday.

What days is the flag always flown at half-staff?
The flag always flies on half-staff on Patriot Day (September 11 of each year), Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7). On Memorial Day, the flag flies at half-staff until noon, at which point it is raised to the top of the staff.

What if I can't fly my flag at half-staff?
Some flags, like the ones commonly seen in school classrooms or on houses, are fixed in a certain position on their poles. How does one handle the sticky situation of a flag that physically can't be flown at half-staff? The United States Code doesn't cover this conundrum, but the American Legion advocates adding a black ribbon to the top of the flag's pole to indicate mourning.

Can anyone other than the President order flags to be flown at half-staff?
Sure. Governors of states, territories, and possessions have the authority under the federal flag code to order a half-staffing, as does the mayor of Washington, D.C.

It's not uncommon for a local mayor to order a half-staffing following the death of some prominent citizen, and occasionally businesses will half-staff their flags to honor the passing of a member of the company. Technically, these sorts of half-staffings aren't covered by the federal flag code. There's no penalty for breaking the federal flag code, though, so it's generally no big deal if a local leader wants to honor a prominent citizen in this way.

How does one raise a flag to half-staff?
Surprisingly, not just by raising it halfway up the flagpole. To properly fly a flag at half-staff in mourning, one quickly raises the flag to the peak of the pole before slowly lowering it back down to the half-staff position.

Portions of this post originally appeared in 2009.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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