Q: I simply don’t understand how “false flag” has come to mean (I guess) a staged tragedy to create sympathy for a group or to push an agenda such as outlawing automatic weapons. It supposedly relates back to pirate ships flying false flags, but that doesn’t seem parallel.
A: Yes, the term “false flag” conjures up images of pirates on the high seas, flying friendly colors to conceal their larcenous motives. However, we haven’t found any evidence that the phrase was ever used literally for a real flag on a real pirate ship.
In the 16th century, when the phrase first appeared in writing, it was strictly a figurative expression. It wasn’t used literally—to mean an actual flag—until almost 300 years later. And pirates weren’t mentioned.
“False flag” is one of those expressions that exist almost solely in figurative use. And its meaning hasn’t changed over the centuries.
In figurative contexts, the Oxford English Dictionary says, a “false flag” means “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way.”
It first appeared, according to the OED, in a religious tract published in the mid-1500s: “Of this sort was Gardiner that abused K. Henry with a false flagge of religion, when he made hys booke of true obedience” (from Thomas Norton’s A Warning Agaynst the Dangerous Practises of Papistes, 1569).
At that time, the word “flag” itself was still new. The noun for a square or rectangular piece of cloth, varying in color and design and flown “as a standard, ensign or signal, and also for decoration or display,” first appeared in writing in 1530, the OED says.
The dictionary’s next example of “false flag” is also figurative, though the writer alludes to pirates. In a sermon published in 1689, George Halley called Roman Catholicism “a Religion that acts in disguise and masquerade, changes frequently its colours, and puts out a false Flag to conceal the Pyrate.”
Similar uses of “false flag,” mostly in political writing, have continued into the 21st century. This is the most recent one in the OED: “These are the true Tory colours, not the false flag of convenience he flies for the working poor” (from the Daily Mirror, London, 2008).
As we said, it wasn’t until the 19th century that “false flag” showed up in the literal sense, defined in the OED as “a flag used to disguise a ship by misrepresenting its nationality, allegiance, intent, etc.”
Here is Oxford’s earliest example: “The boarding officers must, in their discretion, decide, whether this be a true or false flag, and of the character of the vessel” (from a May 29, 1824, article in the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, that refers to searching merchant vessels sailing under foreign flags).
And here’s the OED’s most recent literal citation: “The Obama administration is urging global port authorities to be on the watch for Iranian shipping vessels flying false flags or sailing under fraudulent registrations” (from an Associated Press article that appeared in print and online on July 19 and 20, 2012).
As Oxford notes, the term “false flag” is also used adjectivally, as in “false flag operation” (first recorded in 1982) and “false flag provocation” (2002).
In this sense, the dictionary says, the term describes “an event or action (typically political or military in nature) secretly orchestrated by someone other than the person or organization that appears to be responsible for it.”
Here’s the OED’s latest citation: “Some of those who believe that the 7/7 London bombings were a ‘false flag’ operation by state forces rejects [sic] as fake all the state’s evidence” (from a British monthly, Fortean Times, May 23, 2011).
More recently, an April 3, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times about the Parkland, FL, high school shootings says “conspiracy theorists deemed the incident itself a hoax, or false flag, something that’s further marred the aftermath of every major shooting, including at Sandy Hook Elementary.”
As in those examples, the phrase is often used by people who argue that widely publicized mass shootings, bombings, and so on are actually “false flags” or “false flag operations,” staged by the government or interest groups for political purposes.