The Grammarphobia Blog

Invasive etymologies

Q: I live on Flag Swamp Road in a small town in northwestern Connecticut. I’ve been trying to no avail to learn whether the name of my street is a reference to the invasive yellow-flag iris or an old family called Flag, Flagg, Flagge, or something similar. Can you help?

A: The yellow-flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) is indeed an unwanted guest in swamps, marshes, and other wetlands in Connecticut, but the term “flag swamp” arrived in New England many years before the appearance of the invasive yellow flag.

The iris is believed to have been introduced in the region as a garden plant in the mid-1800s, according to the online Invasive Plant Atlas of New England.

The plant apparently began escaping from gardens and spreading to the wilderness in the second half of the 19th century.

The plant atlas mentions two early reports of yellow flags in the wild: the first in the Hudson River basin in 1868 and the second in Concord, Mass., in 1884.

However, the term “flag swamp” was in use in New England at least as far back as the early 1700s, well before the introduction of the iris.

A book on the history of Sunderland, Mass., for instance, says settlers referred to a wetland in the area as “flagg Swamp” in 1714.

And a book about the history of Falmouth, Mass., citing an anecdote “handed down by tradition” and “probably literally true,” suggests the term may have been in use even earlier than that.

The Falmouth book says the first settlers camped at a flag swamp in 1660. When a child was born at the encampment, the mother reportedly said, “He was born amongst the flags and his name shall be Moses.”

So where does the term “flag swamp” come from? That allusion to the biblical story about Moses in the bulrushes is a good clue.

When the noun “flag” first showed up in English in the 14th century, it referred to reeds, rushes, grasses, or other native wetland plants, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that the term came to be used for irises and other garden plants, but the older sense was still common until at least the late 19th century, according to published references in the OED.

Capt. John Smith, for example, used “flag” in the older sense in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624): “The chiefe root they haue for food is called Tockawhoughe. It groweth like a flagge in Marishes.”

I don’t know when your street was named, but an 1872 book about the early history of Woodbury and nearby towns in northwestern Connecticut mentions a “Flag Swamp, lying between Roxbury and Southbury.”

So, the term “flag swamp” was being used in your area of Connecticut at a time when the yellow-flag iris had barely begun escaping from cultivation and the older meaning of “flag” was in widespread use. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still includes cattails and similar plants among its definitions of the noun “flag.”

Nevertheless, could a family called Flag, Flagg, Flagge, or whatever have been responsible for the naming of Flag Swamp Road in your town? Not likely.

Various “Flag”-type surnames have been common in New England, including eastern Connecticut, since Colonial times. But the name has been rarely seen in northwestern Connecticut, according to a survey of land and census records by Jeannine Green, a local historian in Litchfield County.

In short, the Flag Swamp Road in your town was almost certainly named for a swamp with wild rushes, reeds, or grasses, not for a family or an invasive iris.

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