Many people who fly the Union Flag (of the United Kingdom) manage to get it upside down, without having a clue that this is what they are doing.
What is often called the Union Jack is not as symmetrical as it might look at first sight. When you turn it over – either vertically or horizontally – it is not the same.
This becomes apparent when you look at the ‘X’ cross on the flag. This consists of a broad white stripe with a narrow red stripe inside it. However, the red stripe is not positioned centrally within the white stripe, but to one side. This means that in each of the four quadrants of the flag the white stripe is broader on one side of the red stripe than on the other.
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(The right way up)
Have a close look at the narrow red ‘X’ and put a ruler against it to cover where it is hidden behind the broad central cross. You will see that it emerges from behind the cross in a different position. It was closer to the bottom of the white ‘X’ when on the top left, but not when on the bottom right. It appears to have hopped over when out of sight!
These subtleties are what makes it possible to fly the flag upside down.
The rule is that, in the top left-hand quadrant, the portion of the white stripe above the red stripe must be broader than the portion below the red stripe, on the ‘hoist’ side of the flag. This needs a word of explanation.
Hoist and fly
Because flags are made to be flown from flagpoles they have toggles on one side so that they can be attached to ropes and then be hauled up and down. A length of cord, covered by a piece of canvas, runs up the edge of the flag with the toggles at each end, top and bottom. The canvas therefore makes it clear that this is the ‘hoist’ side. The other side, the one that flaps in the wind, is, not surprisingly, known as the ‘fly’.
Flags are often displayed on paper or other media without any indication of toggles or cords being present. However, the general convention is that they are shown with the hoist to the left and the fly to the right. It is still therefore possible to state that a flag is upside down even if it is not being shown ‘in flight’.
Your flag is upside down!
What all this means is that it is easy to tell if a Union Jack is upside down. If, in the top left-hand quadrant, the upper white portion is narrower than the lower one, then the flag is upside down. The same is true of flags on which someone has written a team name (for example) across the middle – if the name is readable, the hoist must be to the left, and if the broad and narrow parts of the white stripe are in the wrong places, then the flag is upside down.
Does it matter?
To pedants like me, it certainly does! There is a convention that the Union Flag flown upside down is a signal of distress. However, if my ship was sinking I think I might try a less subtle means of calling for help!
It always annoys me when I see scenes of jubilation with small children waving flags on sticks which have been bought for this purpose, but which have been attached to the sticks the wrong way up. Just watch any occasion on which children wave flags for the Queen and see how many of these are upside down – it is always a high proportion!
Do other national flags have the same problem?
National flags seem to fall into three categories in this respect. There are some that would never be flown upside down because it would be blatantly obvious from the outset – those of the USA and Australia, for example.
Then there are those that are horizontally symmetrical and it makes no difference which way up they are flown – the flags of Japan and France come to mind here.
However, there is also a category where it makes (almost literally) all the difference in the world. If you fly the flag of Poland upside down you get the flag of Indonesia!