“Raise red flags” is a commonly used expression in modern day English language, but what is the true historical meaning of red flags?
Merriam Webster defines “red flag” as a sign that a noticeable problem is present and should be dealt with. It is also described as something that attracts irritated attention or a warning when things seem too good to be true. The example referenced is “Gaps in your employment history are red flags to employers”. This noun has now become an idiom in modern day English. Let’s take a look at the historical meaning of red flags.
The earliest reference of a red flag comes from military battle grounds in the 1600s. In an era where there was no means of telecommunications, armies needed a way to alert the opposition of their intentions. Historically, a red flag indicated that the opposing army was approaching with violent intentions. In the photo below, you see two Navy ships (both displaying red flags) engage in battle at sea.
If you view battle flags from countries across the world and throughout history, you will notice that many of them contain the color red in some aspect.
The use of red flags is not restricted to historical battlegrounds, however. Red flags are used in modern day society to alert people of a particular situation, place or desired action. For example, street lights are red when drivers need to stop; a red flag is commonly flown outside of a shooting range, red flags also alert people to dangerous wild fires, storm warnings and even beach warning flags. These are only a few examples of the modern day uses of red flags.
Regardless of its modern day interpretation or historical background, the meaning of red flags can be described with one word – alert.