The Union Jack


‘The Union Jack’ is the popular name of the national flag of the United Kingdom.

What’s the flag actually called? It’s the Union Jack of course. Pause for an intake of breath amongst purists; “No, it’s the Union Flag!”.

Nevertheless, let’s press on and try to explain the oddly named standard, the Union Jack. The ‘union’ part is straightforward. The flag originated as a visual representation of the various political unions of the countries that formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northen Ireland, the present design being established in 1801.

(An aside for those who aren’t quite sure what Great Britain is. Britain is the little green island to the north of France, originally called ‘great’ to distinguish it from what is now called Brittany, which was in the Middle Ages also called Britain. Brittany is now sometimes called Little Britain, which can be confusing as the popular TV show, Little Britain was about Great Britain not Brittany …and this little tangent was supposed to clarify things. Let’s get back to the plot.)

The flag was formed by photoshopping the crosses of the patron saints of England, Scotland and Ireland – St. George, St. Andrew and St. Patrick. Wales was already a principality of England by this point so didn’t get visual respresentation on the flag.

england-flag scotland-flagireland-flag

So, that’s ‘Union’. Now to the tricky part – ‘jack’ or ‘flag’. To be quite proper about it, it’s the Union Flag. However, both Union Flag and Union Jack are widely accepted and referring to the flag as the Union Jack has the advantage that everyone around the world will know what you are talking about. The ‘jack’ designation came about when the national flag was flown from the ‘jack-staff’ of sailing ships. The jack-staff is a spar on the bow of a sailing ship and purists will say that the only time that the flag should be called the Union Jack is when it is flown from a ship’s jack-staff. If you like you can opt for uber-pedantry and call it the Union Jack Flag.


Now, I’d just better check that image of the national flag is the right way up or I’ll really be in trouble.

(sourced from A Phrase a Week)


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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