‘half staff’ or ‘half mast’

In many nations, flags will periodically be flown about halfway up the flagpole, especially on the anniversaries of important military engagements or the deaths of public figures.

Without knowing the meaning behind this symbol, it might be confusing to see flags flying so low on their poles. It would be even more confusing to think about how to describe this tradition.

In English, flags flown below the top of the flagpole are said to be either half-staff or half-mast. These phrases describe the same practice, but there are specific contexts for when each would be more appropriate.

Continue reading to learn more about this phrase.

What is the Difference Between Half-Mast and Half-Staff?

In this post, I will compare half-staff vs. half-mast, and I will use these expressions in sentences to show you how they should appear in context.

I will also include a mnemonic that you can use to help you distinguish between these two variants.

When to Use Half-Staff

‘Half Staff’ or ‘Half Mast’What does half-staff mean? When a flag is flown half-staff, it signifies a mournful salute, often for fallen soldiers, police officers, or other service members. It refers to a flag flown below the top of a flagpole, usually about halfway to the top. The expression functions as an adjective or an adverb in sentences.

A flag flown at a spot below the top of a flagpole began to carry this symbolism in the 17th century, although the phrase itself predates the imagery by a few decades.

Here are a few example sentences,

  • When a police officer was killed in the line of duty, public buildings in the city flew their flags half-staff.
  • Margery’s daughter asked why the flags were being flown at half-staff as they drove past, but Margery didn’t know.
  • The administration at the time said he chose to honor the officers in other ways, including attending a memorial service, meeting with families and flying the White House flags at half-staff. –The New York Times

A flag is said to be ­half-staff only if it is flies on land (see why below).

When to Use Half-Mast

‘Half Staff’ or ‘Half Mast’What does half-mast mean? The phrase half-mast means the same thing as half-staff. It refers to a flag flown below the top of a flagpole to indicate mourning.

Half-mast, however, refers to flags on ships or naval bases. These are the only places where flags are flown on something called a mast. A mast is a tall beam on many ships onto which a sail or other navigational equipment may be secured.

Since masts are only found on ships and naval bases, it makes sense that the term half-mast would only be used in these instances.

For example,

  • The flag on the S.S. Arizona was flown at half-mast in remembrance of the recently deceased former admiral.
  • The flags in the sailboat race were all flying half-mast in honor of the racer who died in last year’s competition.

Trick to Remember the Difference

‘Half Staff’ or ‘Half Mast’Half-staff and half-mast each mean the same thing, but they are used to describer difference circumstances.

  • Half-mast is used specifically for flags flying on ships and naval bases.
  • Generally, half-staff is used anywhere else.

Since only ships have masts, you can easily remember to save half-mast for situations involving ships or other naval installations.

Summary

Is it half-mast or half-staff? Half-mast and half-staff are both phrases that refer to flags flown below the top of the flagpole as a symbol of mourning or respect.

  • Half-mast specifically refers to flags on ships or naval bases.

Flag Status – Half-Staff Regionally

Dear Judge Hill and Colonel McCraw: 
 
Our state and nation mourns the passing of one of our greatest leaders.  Sam Johnson was a fearless patriot and an American hero, and we are incredibly proud and fortunate to have called him a fellow Texan. Congressman Johnson dedicated his life to our nation and the state of Texas.

 As a mark of respect for his life and public service, it is fitting that flags be lowered to half-staff in his honor.   
 
Therefore, pursuant to Sections 3100.065 and 443.024(e) of the Texas Government Code and Title 4 of the U.S. Code (4 U.S.C.

§ 1 et seq), the flags of the State of Texas and the United States of America shall be lowered to half-staff at the Capitol building on Monday, June 8, 2020, in honor of the life and military service of Congressman Sam Johnson.  Flags at the Capitol should return to full-staff the next day.

 
 
Pursuant to the direction of the Collin County Judge, flags of Texas and the United States may be lowered to half-staff on Monday, June 8, 2020.  Individuals, businesses, and other political subdivisions and entities are encouraged to fly flags at half-staff for the same length of time.  Flags should return to full-staff the next day.

  
 
On behalf of Texas, the First Lady and I offer our thoughts and prayers to the Johnson family in their time of mourning and remembrance.  I urge all Texans to appropriately remember Sam Johnson’s life of service to our nation and to the state of Texas.
 
 

Respectfully, 

Governor Greg Abbott

General Instructions on the Proper Display of the Flag

The Texas Government Code directs the methods and means of displaying the Texas flag.

In addition to state agencies, all individuals, businesses, municipalities, counties and political subdivisions are encouraged to fly their Texas and United States flags as a mark of respect and honor for Texas and the United States. Specific questions concerning the proper display of the flag should be answered by consulting Texas Government Code Chapter 3100.

Note that when the flag is to be displayed at half-staff, the flag should first be raised briskly to full-staff and then lowered slowly to half-staff.

Some entities maintain facilities that display other flags, pennants and banners (such as replicas of the six historic flags that have flown over Texas).

Each entity is responsible for determining its own policy regarding these flags and adornments when flags are to be flown at half-staff, but note that no flag may fly higher than the Texas or United States flag.

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It is recommended that in displays such as those containing the six historic flags that have flown over Texas, when flags are ordered to half-staff, the Texas and United States flags should be flown at half-staff and the other flags be removed completely from the display for the duration of the time flags are at half-staff. State agencies or political subdivisions are not required to schedule employees to work non-usual hours for the sole purpose of flying the flags at half-staff.

This is where flags flew at half-staff in April

When you see a flag at half-staff and don't know why, you may find the answer here.

The American Flag and Arizona Flag lay at half staff, in front of Pima County Public Service Center, for White Mountain Apache Police Officer David Kellywood, in Tucson, Ariz. on February 18, 2020. Officer Kellywood was killed in the line of duty in a shooting in the early morning of February 17, 2020, according to Navajo County Sheriff's Office.

Rebecca Sasnett

If you are driving around and notice the American or Arizona flags flying at half-staff, you may wonder why. Sure, you know when a former president has died, but sometimes these are done in memory of a tragic event.

For all of 2020, we are going to tell you when and why the flags for the United States of America or Arizona are flown at half-staff. We'll also toss in those notices for other states as well.

The source for much of this information is FlagSteward.org

According to USFlag.org, which links to a copy of the United States Code, when the flag is flown at half-staff, it should first be hoisted to the peak and then lowered to half-staff. At sunset the flag should be raised back to full-staff and then lowered slowly all the way down.

The U.S. flag must be flown at half-staff for the following office holders or former holders:

  • President of the United States or former president: 30 days from the date of death.
  • Vice President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, retired Chief Justice or Speaker of the House of Representatives: 10 days from the date of death.
  • Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a member of the Cabinet, a former Vice President, President pro tempore of the Senate, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives and Minority Leader of the House: From the day of death until the date of interment.
  • Unites States Senator, Representative, Delegate or the Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico: In the District of Columbia the flag will fly at half-staff on the day of death and the following day, in the state, congressional district, territory or commonwealth of the deceased, the flag will fly at half-staff from the day of death until interment.
  • Governor: Within the state, the flag will fly at half-staff from the day of death until interment.

The Old Farmers' Almanac was also used as a source.

Washington: All flags at Arlington city facilities will fly at half-staff Tuesday, April 28, 2020, until sunset Friday, May 1, 2020, in honor of those who have died because of COVID-19.

Texas: As ordered by the Governor, all flags in Bell County will fly at half-staff from Tuesday, April 28, 2020, until sunset on a date to be determined in honor of Deputy Sheriff Andrew Rhoden, who was killed in the line of duty Sunday, April 26.

Texas: All flags at Department of Public Safety facilities throughout Texas will fly at half-staff from Monday, April 27, 2020, until sunset Thursday, April 30, 2020, in honor of former Director of DPS James B. Adams.

Louisiana: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at government and public facilities in Baton Rouge will fly at half-staff from Monday, April 27, 2020, until sunset on a date yet to be determined in honor of Baton Rouge Police Lt. Glenn Hutto Jr., who was shot and killed in the line of duty. Note: The names of three law enforcement officers were previously listed here in error.

Texas: All flags at Department of Public Safety facilities will fly at half-staff from Monday, April 27, 2020, until sunset Thursday, April 30, 2020, in honor of former DPS Director James B. Adams. All Texans are invited to join in the tribute.

Missouri: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at governmental facilities in Cass, Jackson and Platte counties and at all firehouses will fly at half-staff from Wednesday, April 22, 2020, until the date of his interment (TBD) in honor of Kansas City Fire Department EMT Billy Birmingham, who died of COVID-19 complications.

Massachusetts: All flags at Soldiers' Home facilities and Veterans cemeteries will fly at half-staff until a date to be determined in honor of United States armed forces veterans who have died from COVID-19 illnesses.

Texas: All flags throughout San Marcos will fly at half-staff from Monday, April 20, 2020, until the date of his interment (TBD) in honor of San Marcos Police Officer Justin Putnam, who was killed in the line of duty Saturday, April 18, 2020.

Arizona: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset April 24, 2020, and on the date of her interment (TBD) in honor of for Arizona Governor Jane Hull.

Indiana: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Saturday, April 18, 2020, in honor of Terre Haute firefighter John Schoffstall, who died from COVID-19 complications April 12.

South Carolina: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Saturday, April 18, 2020, In honor of Deputy Jeremy C. LaDue of the Charleston County Sheriff's Department, who died in the line of duty.

Illinois: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset Sunday, April 19, 2020 in honor of Police Chief Terry Engle of the Village of Hampton Police Force.

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Illinois: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until the COVID-19 crisis is over in honor of all who have died from the virus.

  • Virginia: As ordered by the Governor, all Commonwealth flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Thursday, April 16, 2020 in memory of those who died during the Virginia Tech shooting April 16, 2003.
  • Indiana: All flags across Marion County will fly at half-staff Thursday, April 16, 2020, in honor of Breann Leath of the Indianapolis Police Department who died in the line of duty April 9, 2020.
  • South Carolina: All flags at Columbia city facilities will fly at half-staff until at date to be determined in honor of those whose deaths are related to COVID-19.

Ohio: All flags across Cuyahoga County will fly at half-staff from Wednesday, April 15, 2020, until a date to be determined in honor of the loss of citizens to COVID-19.

Tennessee: All flags at Hendersonville city facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset Saturday, April 18, 2020, in honor of Police Lt. James R. Lawson Jr.

Maryland: The state, St. Mary's County flag and Charles County flag will fly at half-staff in those counties from Monday, April 13, 2020, until the date of his interment (TBD) in honor of Bay District Volunteer Firefighter and Charles County Government employee Marcus Paxton.

California: All flags at city facilities in San Diego will fly at half-staff Monday, April 13, 2020 until sunset on a date to be determined, in honor of each American, Californian and San Diegan who has died because of COVID-19.

Kentucky: As ordered by the Governor, all flags atop the state Capitol will fly at half-staff From Tuesday, April 14, 2020, until sunset Monday, April 20, 2020 in honor of the more than 100 Kentuckians who have died from COVID-19.

Louisiana: As ordered by the Governor, all flags atop city facilities in Baton Rouge will fly at half-staff until sunset, April 13, 2020, in honor of Rep. Reggie Bagala, who died of COVID-19 April 9.

Washington, D.C.: All flags at district facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset on a date yet to be determined in honor of those who have lost their lives because of COVID-19.

  1. Michigan: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until the COVID-19 emergency is over in honor of those who have lost their lives because of the virus.
  2. Indiana: All flags at city facilities in Indianapolis will fly at half-staff until sunset on a date not yet determined in honor of Officer Breann Leath of the Indianapolis Metro Police Department, who was shot and killed in the line of duty.
  3. Utah: As ordered by the Governor, all flags on State Capitol grounds will fly at half-staff Friday, April 10, 2020, in honor of former Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives Robert “Bob Garff, who died from COVID-19 complications March 29.
  4. Georgia: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Friday, April 10, 2020 in honor of Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews of the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

Connecticut: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until the COVID-19 emergency is over in honor of those who have lost their lives or been affected by the virus.

Indiana: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset Sunday April 12, 2020, in honor of former Purdue University President Dr. Steven Beering.

New York: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until the PAUSE is over in honor of the lives lost to COVID-19.

Pennsylvania: As ordered by the Governor, all Commonwealth (state) flags at all state facilities will fly at half-staff until further notice in honor of the victims of COVID-19.

Michigan: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half staff Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in honor of U.S. Army Specialist Clay Welch, who died while on duty in South Korea.

Ohio: All flags at Licking County facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in honor of Newton Fire Chief Jim Glover and retired Licking County Sheriff's Office Sergeant George Croom.

California: All flags at Riverside County facilities will fly at half-staff until the date of his interment in honor of Deputies David Werksman and Terrell Young who died from COVID-19 complications.

Pennsylvania: All flags at Bucks County facilities will fly at half-staff until the date of his interment in honor of past chief and current assistant chief Rick Johnson of Station 33 of the Tullytown Fire Department. Johnson died of COVID-19 complications.

New York: All flags at Westchester County facilities will fly at half-staff until a date not yet determined in honor of the Westchester residents who have died from COVID-19 complications.

Arizona: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in honor of Phoenix Police Department Commander Greg Carnicle, who died in the line of duty March 29, 2020.

Texas: As approved by the Governor, all flags at Hutchinson County facilities will fly at half-staff until the date of his interment in honor of Hutchinson County Sheriff Kirk Coker, who died in the line of duty.

New Jersey: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff indefinitely in honor of all those who have lost their lives or been affected by COVID-19.

Indiana: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Friday, April 3, 2020, in honor of former Elwood Mayor Jerry Werline.

Michigan: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff Friday, April 3, 2020, in honor of Michigan Air National Guard Sergeant Nathan William Denryter.

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Massachusetts: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff from April 1 to sunset Sunday, April 5, 2020, in honor of the United States Armed Forces military veterans and residents of the Massachusetts Soldiers' Home-Holyoke, who died this past week in Holyoke, Mass. (11 reported to have died from COVID-19 complications).

Vidalia, Georgia: All flags at Vidalia city facilities will fly at half-staff from April 1, 2020, until the date of his interment (TBD) in honor of 26-year Mayor Ronnie Dixon, who died April 1.

Atlanta, Georgia: All flags at Atlanta city facilities will fly at half-staff from April 1 until sunset Friday, April 3, 2020, in honor of Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery.

Santa Rosa, California: All flags at Santa Rosa city facilities will fly at half-staff from April 1, 2020, until the date of her interment (TBD) in honor of Santa Rosa Police Detective Marylou Armer, who died march 31 from complications of COVID-19.

North Carolina: As ordered by the Governor, all flags at state facilities will fly at half-staff until sunset April 3, 2020, in honor of State Highway Patrol Trooper Nolan J. Sanders, who died while in the line of duty in Wayne County March 27, 2020.

We are telling you when and why the flags for the United States of America or Arizona are flown at half-staff. We'll also toss in those notice…

Words: Woe and Wonder

FLAP OVER HALF-MAST
By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Vexillological terms can be vexing. For starters, not all of us are aware that “vexillology” refers to the study of flags.

But even if we do know the meaning, what about all the jargon that goes with the word — some of it original, and some of it hoisted from other fields, especially heraldry.

Canton? (A small square design on some flags.) Ferrule? (A metal tip at the bottom of a pole or staff.) Fimbriation? (A narrow border.) Grommet? (A washer, often made of brass, the rope goes through.) Quincunx? (A specific arrangement of five symbols, such as stars.)

Of course not all terms require riffling through a dictionary. If a flag gets tangled in the rope while being raised or lowered, for instance, it's fouled.

That's straightforward enough. But what is the proper term for flags that have been lowered as a sign of mourning?

Half-staff? Half-mast? Does it matter?

  • When former prime minister Pierre Trudeau died, several people accused the CBC of fouling up the language.
  • Here are a couple of the complaints:
  • Sept. 30, 2000

Ever since the death of Mr. Trudeau, I have been hearing CBC radio and television announcers say that “flags are at half-mast”. I don't see any ships around here.

Ships and boats have “masts” — the rest of us make do with “staffs” . . . .

Normally, I would not bother to mention this except I know that Mr. Trudeau would have known the difference.

Other than that, I love the CBC and always have. And the site is excellent. Keep up the good work . . . .


Bill Billowen
Ottawa


Oct. 2, 2000


No one writing or editing your stories about Trudeau's death realize that in Canada, the term for lowering a flag is half-staff, not half-mast (which is an American term.) CP and several print reporters do realize this.

Ironic, given how Trudeau worked so hard to ensure we Canadians do not follow blindly in the footsteps of Americans.


Jo Mrozewski
Burnaby, B.C.

The first letter suggests mast should be restricted to ships. The second insists that half-mast is an American expression.

  1. Neither claim is correct, according to leading language authorities.
  2. DEFINITIONS UNFURLED
  3. The 1998 New Oxford English Dictionary and the Penguin Canadian Dictionary include entries for half-mast but not for half-staff.
  4. The Gage Canadian Dictionary lists half-staff as a synonym for half-mast, adding that it is especially common in the United States.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary broadens the geography a bit, suggesting half-staff is a term that would be understood by many North Americans. Its brief definition? “half-staff = half-mast“.

A well known American dictionary, Webster's, considers the words interchangeable, pointing out that half-mast (from the 1620s) is older than half-staff (which first appeared in the early 1700s.)

The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage rejects the argument that one of the terms should be restricted to ships. It says “half-mast and half-staff are both in common use for flags on land, and both terms are perfectly acceptable.”

THE MYTH ABOUT MAST

Even though virtually all dictionaries point out that half-mast and half-staff are synonymous, some people maintain that you don't have both oars in the water if you apply the first term to flags on shore.

There are three reasons to reject the argument. First, mast may not have started exclusively as a nautical term. There is evidence that it is tied to a Latin word for “stake” (palus), an Irish word for “club” (maite), and an Indo-European expression for “rod” (mazdos). Some lexicographers believe it may also have roots in an old term for “timber”.

The second point is found in the mammoth Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

According to Volume Nine (which covers about half of all words that begin with “L” and “M”), people have been calling tall poles on land masts for more than 350 years — from towers that guide travellers in the mountains to those that support telegraph wires and broadcasting equipment. In other words it's a bit too late to start complaining. The ship, in fact, has sailed.

The third reason raises and salutes common sense.

If it's OK to describe a tidy house as “shipshape” or to call a refuge far from water a “port in the storm”, why insist on limiting “mast” to mariners? By extension, we would also have to stop scuttling agreements, harbouring grudges, and anchoring newscasts. Captains of industry could no longer stay on an even keel while all hands on deck learned the ropes.

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