Are flags at half-staff or half-mast?

Ah, the question we get all the time.  Which is correct, half-staff or half-mast?  The answer is a little more complicated than the question suggests.

Union Jacks flying at half mast in London.  Photo by Link Humans
Union Jacks flying at half mast in London. Photo by Link Humans

According to Wikipedia, the term half-mast goes back to the 17th Century, although it’s not specific about where that was found.  It is, however, the term used in nearly all English speaking countries, except for the United States.

Most dictionaries list half-mast but show half-staff as a synonym.  In that case, both would be considered correct.

Merriam-Webster defines half-mast as “a point some distance but not necessarily halfway down below the top of a mast or staff or the peak of a gaff.”  If you look up half-staff it refers you to half-mast. According to the site, the first known use of half-mast was in 1588, while half-staff’s first known use was in 1708.

Collins Dictionary shows a similar result.  While the definition is slightly different, it too refers half-staff to the results for half-mast.

State House Flags at Half-staff for Memorial Day. Photo by James Walsh
State House Flags at Half-staff for Memorial Day. Photo by James Walsh

In the United States, the phrase half-staff has become the proper term.  In US flag code, established in 1923 and adopted as public law in 1942, the term half-staff is used exclusively.  While many Americans like to say that half-mast is the correct usage on a ship, we have not found any official document that says this.  The US Navy website does use the term half-mast but it doesn’t specify the type of pole.

US Flag Code defines half-staff as “the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff.”

US news agencies have solved the problem for themselves by creating their own rules.  These rules are used to create consistency throughout their articles, and also includes how the agency treats words like OK vs. Okay.  We’ve found that they generally use half-staff (in keeping with flag code) but have chosen to use half-mast if referring specifically to maritime use.  It’s not clear if these usage rules predate the US opinion that half-mast is reserved for maritime installations or if they were written because of the opinion.

Reuters uses half-staff over half-mast in a ration about 6:1.

The Associated Press uses half-staff over half-mast in a ration about 23:1.

So, we know that there isn’t much agreement on the proper term to describe it, but luckily we do agree on the how and why of lowering a flag.  The act of lowering the flag shows mourning or respect.  This is a common practice in many countries around the world as described at Wikipedia. It is also commonly done by raising the flag first to the full height of the pole (briskly) and then (slowly or ceremoniously) lowering it to the halfway point.

Hey, at least we can agree on that.  If you’ve got a flag etiquette question, please use the comments section to ask them, or sign up for our half-staff alerts and notifications for more details.

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