While some may say that the two terms are absolute synonyms, others have arguments for the half-staff vs. half-mast debate. Therefore, let’s take a deeper look and clear the confusion once about half-staff and half-mast American flags once and for all!
What Does Half-Staff Mean?
There are several national holidays or special occasions when the flag protocol calls for the flag to be flown at half-staff. That means the flag flies at only half of the pole and left like that until noon or the whole day, i.e. until sunset.
The flag on the half staff, i.e. half the pole signifies mourning. It is acknowledged as a mournful salute in the U.S. and worldwide. Normally, U.S. flags are at half staff on last Monday in May (Memorial Day), September 11th (Patriot Day), and December 7th (Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day). In addition, a flag may be at half staff at government institutions if the President of the United States decided to honor a tragic event such as the death of a former official or foreign dignitary, for example.
Generally, the term half-staff is widely used to indicate flying the flag at the spot below the top of the flagpole. Most importantly, half-staff means the flagpole is inserted into the ground.
When did people start doing this to pay tribute on the day of death of former and current government officials and other men and women of stature? This mark of respect probably originated in the 17th century.
What Does Half-Mast Mean?
Some would say it means the same as half-staff, but if we want to be nitty-gritty, then a mast is a part of a ship or a naval base. Hence, the two cannot be exactly interchangeable. Masts are tall beams on a ship or a naval base used for sails, flags, or certain navigational equipment. That’s a far cry from the pole on the front wall of someone’s home.
What Happens in Practice?
Upon inspecting a couple of dictionaries, it appears the terms are used interchangeably, though that does not mean there won’t be any protests against such usage. The Britannica Dictionary defines half-mast as the position in the middle of a mast or a pole, but does not define whether the pole has to be in a naval base or on a ship.
On the other hand, the Cambridge Dictionary suggests half-mast is an American English term for half-staff. The MacMillan Dictionary has but one definition of half-staff, without any suggestion of half-mast as a synonym. Yet, if you look at the definition of half-mast, it matches the definition of half-staff.
What are we to do?
To set the record straight, we’d recommend sticking to the most obvious meaning, which is that a flag of the United States that is half-mast is flown below the flagpole top in a naval base, or below the mast top on a ship.
However, do take this as a recommendation since at the moment there isn’t an official body regulating these two terms and requiring that only one of them is used on certain occasions.
For more information about flags, flag etiquette, and flag holidays as well as our half staff calendar, please feel free to contact us. One of our Customer Care Representatives would be more than happy to assist you and answer any of your questions.