Does a Flag Fly at Half-Staff or Half-Mast?
While I’ve primarily heard “flying a flag at half-staff,” I wasn’t certain of the reasons for using either term with the American flag. So I put a little research time into this.
The US Flag Code TITLE 4 > CHAPTER 1 > Sec. 7. “Position and manner of display” consistently uses the phrase “half-staff” throughout subsection (m) including “(m)(1) the term ”half-staff” means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;”
A Google search of the whitehouse.gov website shows consistent use of the phrase “Half-staff” and no use of “half-mast”
There is one example in a recent White House press release related to an Executive Order on when to fly the flag at half-staff.
On the other hand, both dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster online defer any definition of “half-staff” & instead list “see half-mast.” Definitions for half-mast from those 2 sources:
” The position about halfway up a mast or pole at which a flag is flown as a symbol of mourning for the dead or as a signal of distress. Also called half-staff.”
” a point some distance but not necessarily halfway down below the top of a mast or staff or the peak of a gaff”
Neither definition makes any reference to the use of half-mast as a nautical term.
The North American Vexillological Association primarily uses “half-staff” but does not address your issue when answering a question that used the term “half-mast.”
In summary, while I have been unable to find a source to back up the CBC article’s comment “…halfstaff is acknowledged as the official expression in the United States,” anecdotal evidence for American use of “half-staff” is overwhelming when used in the context of lowering old Glory in respect for the dead. That being said, I would not be personally offended by anyone using “halfmast” in this context as it does not appear to be an issue of disrespect.
While we simply cannot respond personally to every inquiry, we’ll try to add the most common questions and answers here. If you have suggestions, comments or questions for us, we’d appreciate your dropping us a note by clicking here.
If you’d like to spread the word and help others find USA Flag Site, you can link to us from your web site.