When the nation is in a state of mourning, we know it because the American flag is not hoisted to the very top of the flagpole where it usually belongs. But if you ask people what this is called, you’ll get dueling responses—some folks will tell you the flag is being flown at “half-mast,” while others will tell you it’s at “half-staff.” On the surface, people are telling you the same thing—namely, that the flag is flying half as high as it normally would. But in the United States, there’s a difference between half-mast and half-staff that you should be aware of.
The concept of lowering flags as a symbol of mourning has its origins in naval customs. During periods of mourning, ships would lower their flags to leave room at the top for a “phantom flag” of sorts. Ships would fly these flags from their masts, the tall beams that support a ship’s sails. Therefore, a flag that’s not raised to its full height is said to be at “half-mast.” As the custom made its way onto land, it retained its naval name—in most countries, that is.
It’s a bit of a custom in the English language to assign certain words exclusively to maritime use. Anyone who’s ever been on a recreational boat knows that left and right become “port” and “starboard,” or that front and back become “stem” and “stern.” American English observes a distinction between land and sea when it comes to flying flags in mourning. In the United States, therefore, flags flown on land are not flown from masts, but from staffs. However, the United Kingdom and the rest of the English-speaking nations that once comprised the British Empire have had no qualms about bringing the term “half-mast” to dry land. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends “half-staff” in American usage, but a trip across the pond or even a trip across the Canadian border will find flags on land flying at “half-mast.” So, use the term “half-staff” at home in the States—unless, of course, you’re an inveterate Anglophile.
Half-Staff and Half-Mast Protocol
Whether you say “half-staff” on American soil or “half-mast” anywhere else, what matters more than the difference between half-mast and half-staff is that you follow proper protocol while flying your flag in mourning. Remember that when you lower a flag to half-staff, you must first hoist it to the very top of the flagpole before lowering it. And this isn’t a decision you can make for yourself—only the President or a state governor can call for this observance.
If you want to show your patriotism in times of joy and sorrow alike, Federal Flags is your flagpole store, where you can fly your flag at half-staff—or, if you prefer, half-mast.