What Is the Union Jack and Why Do We Call It That?

(Last Updated On: April 8, 2019)

What Is the Union Jack?

What Is the Union Jack?

First thing’s first, if you’re not up to date on your geography or international politics, the Union Flag (colloquially referred to as the Union Jack) is the United Kingdom’s national flag.

Adopted in 1801, the modern design of the Union Jack is actually a combination of three older national flags, one from England, one from Scotland, and one from Ireland. England gave the Red Cross (of Saint George), Scotland the White Saltaire (of Saint Andrew), and Ireland the Red Saltaire (of Saint Patrick).

Now, if you’re versed in the composition of the United Kingdom, you might be aware of the fact that Wales is a UK constituent as well. If you’re versed in flags, you might also be aware of the fact that the Welsh flag has a dragon on it. As such, you may be wondering why the UK skipped out on a chance to put a dragon on the Union Jack?

The answer lies in the fact that Wales was already part of the Kingdom of England when predecessors to the current flag were made. So technically, England’s Red Cross represents Wales by proxy. Of course, the absence of Welsh representation on the Union Jack has led to some calls for them to be added over the years. Who knows, maybe a dragon will appear on the next iteration of the flag?

Why Do We Call It the Union Jack?

The names “Union Jack” and “Union Flag” actually predate the modern design of the Union Jack – going so far back as to predate the formation of the United Kingdom. Back in the 17th century, the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland came together in a personal union. A flag was created to reflect this union, and hence, the Union Flag.

There’s a caveat though, the Union Flag was only called so on land. If it was being flown on a warship that wasn’t in harbor, the flag then became the Union Jack. The word “jack” has long been used to describe a maritime bow flag. This technicality was relaxed somewhere around the 19th Century, and now basically everyone calls it the Union Jack.

Why is the Union Jack Everywhere?

If you’ve seen lists of flags at any point, you may have noticed that some variation of the Union Jack appears on a lot of other flags. For example, the national flags of New Zealand and Australia both have a Union Jack up in the corner. The Union Jack even has official status in Canadian parliament, despite not appearing on their maple leaf (though Canadians do call it the Royal Union Flag).

Play this Flags of the World quiz to find more examples of the Union Jack.

The answer to the Union Jack being on a lot of flags is pretty simple if you’re familiar with the flag’s history. It’s the leftover marks of British Imperialism, and not every country has chosen to keep it. Singapore removed the Union Jack from their national flag in 1960, and Hong Kong in 1997. Many other countries have done similar over the years.

Further, despite fighting a war to gain independence from Britain, America actually still has vestiges of the Jack floating around. Namely, the state flag of Hawaii, due to Hawaii’s history with the British Empire.

Union Jack Law

Speaking of America, American readers (or those vaguely familiar with American culture) know that the American flag is taken very seriously, to the point where you can go to prison for up to a year if you leave the flag on the floor. If you think that isn’t real, Flag Desecration has legal code in the US. So those of you used to those levels of patriotism might understandably be confused as to why the Union Jack is printed and sold on almost everything, including but not limited to underwear.

The answer to that question is also simple, the UK doesn’t have any legal code regarding desecration of the national flag, and as such the populace never grew to take it as seriously.

Want more flags? Check out these other posts from the Sporcle Blog. And make sure to try out a few fun Flag quizzes on Sporcle.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.