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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(bureaucratese | “mark (out),” “note,” “single out,” “categorize”)

Now, “flag” (verb) has meant a lot of things over the years. “Wane” or “weaken” was always one of my favorites — the only intransitive use. Another meaning is “Mark a route or boundaries” — something a surveyor would do. Often, but not necessarily, with “down,” it means “signal to stop.” In auto racing, it means “direct by means of a flag,” as in “flag a car off the course.” “Communicate by means of flags” comes from the nearly forgotten art of semaphore. Even football referees may get into the act; sometimes “flag” is used to mean “signal a penalty,” whence it has taken on a metaphorical use.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, “flag” meaning “indicate a need for further checking” started to creep into technical language among government officials, particularly economists and analysts. It could also mean “assign to categories,” as by means of shape- or color-coding. But the former was more common even then; the word conjured up a list of figures, some marked for later review. Anomalous observations, results that exceed or fall short of acceptable levels, data points that lie too far off the graph — that sort of thing. It doesn’t start to appear in mainstream journalism (even then, mostly political reporting) until the 1970’s. Even that late, the word remained government property.

I naively thought the rise of the word coincided with the rise of Post-It notes, which debuted (so says Wikipedia) in 1980. That technological breakthrough may have given the new sense a boost, given the soon widespread use of Post-Its to mark passages in books and reports. But its origin must lie elsewhere. I would nominate surveying as the most likely candidate; the notion of flagging a route or boundaries strikes me as the closest analogue. The similar verb “red-flag,” which means roughly the same thing but sounds more drastic, seems to have arisen in the 1970’s, so while it probably helped this particular sense of “flag” to take over, it almost certainly was a descendant rather than an ancestor. Most of the old meanings cited in the first paragraph are still available, but “flag” meaning “falter” or “peter out” seems to be disappearing (“falter” may be on life support, too). It makes me sad to see the quirky old usage (from the Old French word for “become flaccid”), more interesting by far than any of the other meanings, brushed aside by an unnecessary bit of bureaucratese.

The word has grown more threatening in the last thirty years, to my ear at least. It is often used to mean not just set aside for further checking, but for investigation. To be flagged is to be under suspicion, whether you’re an image on a security camera, an on-line posting, or a bank loan. In the old days, it meant circling a few items in a column of numbers. Now it means “we’re watching you.”


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