The Curious Case of Slang “flag” in Mandarin Chinese

Over the past few years, I’ve personally observed that the expression “立flag” has become quite popular. It simply means to set a goal (定目标), in younger net-slang parlance (网络语). It’s usually a personal goal, not something like a company’s revenue goals or anything that formal.

Here’s a simple usage of it in our webcomic:

(Click through for full text transcript)

I don’t want to go too far down the etymology rabbit hole here, but here’s where it gets weird… It’s not hard to imagine that somehow (remotely??) planting a flag on a mountain peak is equivalent to setting it as a destination, the mountain peak serving as a metaphor for the goal.

But then why isn’t the verb normally used for planting a flag? (It’s not… that would be something like .) What’s going on there?

Here the trail gets confusing (the origin is in obscure internet forums, after all). It apparently relates to the Chinese translation of some Japanese anime. Not that weird… the weird part is that the “flag” referred to is not a physical flag, but the parameters passed into into a command line program on a computer. (Like in the Linux command “ls -a“, the “-a” is the flag which means “show all.”) Wha..? WHY in the what?!

【flag是什么?】

FLAG原本是一个编程指令,常被运用于计算机语言,例如C语言或D语言中,常于用来记载变量的一个参数。

Source: HXNews.com

Anyway… 立flag. The expression itself isn’t too difficult.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. It may have nothing to do with that particular etymology, but a flag in computer programming is not just a command line flag as in your example.
    A more common use is to signal some event has happened within a program, or an option has been set that changes that program (resp. script) behavior.

  2. To clarify the origin information a bit, the translation for programming flag isn’t exactly ‘command line program input flags’ but more like flags acting as global variables (or global state) in programming languages. (I.e., the part of the inline quote on the C and D programming languages)

    I’m not familiar with the Mandarin slang usage, but the Japanese net slang makes a little more sense as a ‘programming event flag.’ E.g., foreshadowing event that triggers a flag for something that happens later, like a death flag for someone tempting fate.

    See these pages for examples, including more background on the programming origin:
    https://anime.stackexchange.com/questions/2746/why-are-romantic-events-sometimes-called-flags
    https://bangin.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/%E3%83%95%E3%83%A9%E3%82%B0-furagu/
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EventFlag

    It’s interesting to see slang evolve like this as it crosses cultural/domain boundaries!

  3. jdmartinsen Says: May 17, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    立 isn’t exactly unused for raising flags: Mao’s “旗子立起来了”, or the outlaws raising the 替天行道 banner over Mt. Liang, “在山顶上立一面杏黄旗”.

    Interestingly, it looks like an earlier online generation (2010-ish?) used 竖旗 for both the anime and “set a goal” meanings, but I can’t tell from the brief look I’ve had whether or not it has the jinx connotations of “立flag”.

    • Thanks for the reply! Yeah, 立 is kind of weird for flags… not UNused, but not super common in speech, for sure. (Whereas 立flag is common in informal speech.)

      Weird about 竖旗… this is an odd rabbit hole.

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