Flags across the country are flying at half-staff as a memorial to those killed in the terrorist attack on the United States. What are the laws governing the lowering of the flag--and is the proper term "half-mast" or "half-staff"?
Dictionaries list "half-mast" (the term first appeared in 1627) as the primary entry, but the U.S. government prefers the newer (1708) "half-staff" when referring to the lowering of the flag as a sign of mourning and respect. According to the federal law governing the displaying of the flag, by presidential order the flag is flown at half-staff upon the death of major officials of the federal government or a state governor. The president also has discretionary powers to lower the flag for lower-level officials or foreign dignitaries. The governors themselves can also order flags in their states to be lowered in honor of the death of current or former officials. While the code is specific about this honor being reserved for government officials, in practice it is used more broadly as a sign of mourning. The method laid out in the law for flying a flag at half-staff is to first raise the flag completely, then lower it to the half-staff position. At the end of the day the flag is again raised briefly before being fully lowered.
Photograph of U.S. flag flying half-staff in Washington, D.C., from Reuters/Corbis.