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(U.S. Navy photo illustration by Austin Rooney/Released)

Half-Mast or Half-Staff?

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

Blame the British. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so wrote Shakespeare for his epic teenage romance Romeo and Juliet.

That might have flown by people back in the 1600s, but in a day when we chat in cryptic alphabets and abbreviations, don’t let anyone confuse “half-mast” and “half-staff.” The Brits and most of Europe, not unlike the metric system, simply use “half-mast” no matter where the flag is flown.

Americans, however, tend to do things differently, you know, like switching our knife and fork into our right hand (sorry lefties) rather than the more efficient European method of cutting their meat with the knife in their left hand. Or measuring everything in inches and gallons.

 (U.S. Navy photo illustration by Austin Rooney/Released)
(U.S. Navy photo illustration by Austin Rooney/Released)

So here’s an easy way to avoid being flamed by your Facebook “friends” for mis-using the terminology of half-mast and half-staff.

If you are on a ship, that pole on which the flag flies is called a mast. So for ships lowering their flags to honor the death of a government official, it’s appropriately called “half-mast.”

If that pole is stuck in the ground or attached to a building, then it is “half-staff.”

Either way, it means the same thing. Something has happened to put the nation in mourning. According to the United States Flag Code, only the president can dictate a nation-wide lowering the flag, generally reserved for heads of state, former presidents, and other government officials, including the chief justice or members of Congress. He can also lower it in tribute to leaders of other countries, like Nelson Mandela, or following a disaster, such as the Boston Marathon shootings.

State governors may order the lowering of the flag for someone of note in their state.

Flags also are to be flown at half-staff on Memorial Day (but only until noon) and on Peace Enforcement Officers Memorial Day. President George W. Bush ordered flags to be lowered following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Among the first lowering of the flag in the United States goes back to 1799 following the death of former President George Washington when ships were ordered to “wear their colors half-mast high.” It was an honor also ordered by the Royal Navy to their fleet to honor the man who had wrested the colony from the United Kingdom: “The whole range of history does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration,” a London newspaper wrote.

While there is no definitive proof where the idea of lowering flags comes from, it certainly has its naval heritage. Flags were lowered just enough to leave room for an invisible flag to fill the void – the flag of death.

Such an incident was documented in 1612 following the death of English explorer John Hall during an expedition to Greenland. While he was on his boarding boat, he was struck by a spear thrown by a native Inuit, perhaps in retaliation to the capture and imprisoning of four Inuits seven years earlier by Scottish explorer John Cunningham.

When the ship, Heart’s Ease, sailed back to England, the ship was flying its flags half-mast to honor their captain.

The British took the sailors’ tradition and naturally made rules about it. Among the regulations for lowering our own flag, one must first raise the flag to the top of the mast/staff, and then lower it one flag’s width. Before removing the flag for the evening, the flag must first be raised to the top before being lowered for removal. And since we were first a British colony, such tributes became tradition on American soil.

P.S. It’s CANADA goose, unless you know for sure that goose is from Canada. Then it can be a CANADIAN goose.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (May 31, 2004) - Sailors assigned to ships based at Pearl Harbor bring the flag to half-mast over the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island in honor of Memorial Day May 31, 2004. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (May 31, 2004) – Sailors assigned to ships based at Pearl Harbor bring the flag to half-mast over the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island in honor of Memorial Day May 31, 2004. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)


  1. It’s “half-mast” anywhere for the Navy. Why? Because…

  2. Winchell M. Craig

    Cut meat with my knife in my LEFT hand? Surely you are confused….