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if the flag were orange and purple song writers would be outta luck
June 14, 2010 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Why do we say "red, white and blue" to describe the American flag? Who, or what, decided that order?
posted by Lucinda to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's in the lyrics to Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:36 PM on June 14, 2010


It's the same order we use to describe the Union Flag in the UK. I have no proof that it is causal (although our flag is a little older).
posted by handee at 12:58 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are some mysteries in the English language, including certain sounds that just feel right. In my opinion, "red, white and blue" is naturally more pleasing to our English ears (for some reason) than the other arrangements. Think of saying "the red big dog" instead of "the big red dog". Which one sounds better? Why?
posted by Think_Long at 1:06 PM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


The top stripe is red. The second stripe is white. The stripes in toto represent three quarters of the flag so they're referred to first. The remaining quarter is blue with white stars, but we've already mentioned white so we don't need it again. Thus "Red, White, and Blue".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:09 PM on June 14, 2010


I agree that it's a mystery of the language and nothing really to do with meaning, but, if we wanted to retroactively come up with a reason why it should be the way it is, it seems pretty simple: white has to be in the middle since it goes with both red and blue (red & white stripes, white on blue stars), so then the question is whether red or blue goes at the front - and clearly red does, because it's an equal stripe with white, while blue is just the background of the stars.
posted by mdn at 1:12 PM on June 14, 2010


Think of saying "the red big dog" instead of "the big red dog". Which one sounds better? Why?

according to the long thought experiment I just did, the color adjective always comes right before the noun. So that's why that sounds better. As to why it goes there, that's probably because: it sounds better.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:23 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The French flag is the "bleu, blanc et rouge" if I recall correctly. Must sound better that way in French.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:45 PM on June 14, 2010


The French flag is the "bleu, blanc et rouge" if I recall correctly. Must sound better that way in French.

That's the order (left to right) in which the colors appear on the French flag.
posted by phatkitten at 1:58 PM on June 14, 2010


Therefore, it's "red, white and blue" just to be different from the French.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:44 PM on June 14, 2010


Maybe because they've always been listed in that order. Red, white, and blue are listed in that order in the Flag Acts of 1777, 1794, and 1818. (The 1777 act was passed by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, which is why June 14 is Flag Day.) As Chocolate Pickle suggests the red and white stripes are mentioned first, then the blue field.

However, the official explanation of the symbolism of the Great Seal of the United States lists white, then red, then blue.

According to Wikipedia "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" was an unofficial national anthem in the 19th century and was written around 1843. "Red, white and blue" is also in the lyrics for You're a Grand Old Flag (1906).

Maybe people were influenced by the text of the flag acts, but I think it's more likely that whoever wrote "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" wrote the colors in that order because they sounded good, and two hugely popular songs established that as the order the colors are referred to.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:17 PM on June 14, 2010


Well, let's look at the other options.
RBW: you've got that ending "d" in Red going to that "b" to start Blue...kinda clumsy.
BWR: the "oo" of blue kinda runs into "white"s double-ewe. Ew.
BRW: choppy.
WBR:not too bad, eh. "red" doesn't rhyme nearly as nicely as "blue".
WRB: "d" against "b" again.

Ending with blooooo after two short jabby words has a nice cadence to it du-du-daah.
posted by notsnot at 3:18 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


We say red, white and blue in Norway as well.
posted by flippant at 3:31 PM on June 14, 2010


It's red, white and blue here in the UK too (not as a name for the flag, but if anyone asked the colours they would definitely be in that order). I'm with the list being aesthetically pleasing in that order.
posted by Coobeastie at 4:08 PM on June 14, 2010


The usual explanation for why "the big red dog" sounds better than "the red big dog" invokes the semantic categories that the predicates belong to. 'Red', 'white', and 'blue' are all colors, so they belong to the same semantic category.

Besides, it sounds more natural (to me anyway) to describe the Greek flag as blue and white rather than white and blue, which suggests that there isn't going to be any sort of general rule about the preferred ordering of color predicates.
posted by painquale at 4:20 PM on June 14, 2010


Chocolate Pickle is very close to what I believe is the real reason:

The top stripe is red. The second stripe is white. The stripes in toto represent three quarters of the flag so they're referred to first. The remaining quarter is blue with white stars, but we've already mentioned white so we don't need it again. Thus "Red, White, and Blue".

The flag follows heraldic conventions. Heraldically speaking, it is emblazoned:
"Barry of 13 gules and argent, on a canton azure 50 mullets of five points in nine alternating rows of six and five, argent."

Or, in plain English,
"Horizontally striped with 13 red and white stripes, the topmost one red, but with a blue rectangle in the upper left corner that is decorated with 50 five-pointed stars (in the 6-5-6-5-6-5-6-5-6 configuration)."

As you can see from the order of colors mentioned in the emblazon, our flag is red and white (in that order), with a significant blue element added on.

Ergo, it is red, white, and blue.

18th-century educated gentlemen would have understood this clearly.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:11 PM on June 16, 2010


Is it "aesthetically pleasing" as "red, white and blue" *because* that's how it's been said for lo these many years, though? If the world had been saying "blue, white and red" for 200+ years, wouldn't *that* be "aesthetically pleasing"?
posted by Lucinda at 5:15 AM on June 17, 2010


Is it "aesthetically pleasing" as "red, white and blue" *because* that's how it's been said for lo these many years, though? If the world had been saying "blue, white and red" for 200+ years, wouldn't *that* be "aesthetically pleasing"?

Yes to both. I don't think there is a genuine (objectively verifiable) answer to this question. IAmBroom's heraldic explanation is a classic example of "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail"; I'm quite sure people don't consult heraldry manuals before deciding how to describe a flag.
posted by languagehat at 10:20 AM on May 25, 2011


languagehat, if those people you are describing are living in 18th-century Europe or European-settled North America, you would be wrong.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:25 PM on May 28, 2011


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