A vexillologist is someone who engages in the academic study of flags. While being a vexillologist often incorporates a myriad of disciplines, at its most basic, it is simply the art of flag identification. The term vexillology was invented in 1957 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who derived it from the Latin word, vexillum. A vexillum was a flag displayed by the ancient Romans, and the word translates literally to "small sail."
Dr. Smith coined vexillology in response to his own ambition to scholarly pursue the study of flags, which he did with enormous success, becoming not only the world's first, but most respected vexillologist. In addition to vexillology, Dr. Smith also coined the terms vexillophiles, for flag hobbyists, and vexillographers, for flag designers. During the 1960s, Dr. Smith greatly advanced the study of vexillology through the founding of the Flag Research Center and the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA). He also implemented the first International Congress of Vexillology, and has published numerous books and resources on the subject, including The Flag Bulletin, recognized as one of the world's most scholarly vexillological resources.
One can be a vexillologist to varying degrees. It need not be any more complicated than collecting and studying flags as a hobby in one's spare time. It is also a serious academic field, however, and there are many avenues for pursuing the study with more rigor. One can seek out and choose to become a member of various vexillology associations, as well as subscribe to or buy any number of books and publications on the subject. Many associations not only teach vexillologists about various flags, but also mine the historical and ideological world behind flag study and design.
The ardent vexillologist will research historical records to fully understand the many symbols found in various flags, investigating not only the the origin of a flag, but also the thoughts and ideals that went into its design, and the various changes it has seen since its inception. These studies naturally draw any vexillologist into the fields of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and heraldry, the study of coats of arms and badges. Vexillology blends both disciplines, given that flags are a medium for communicating cultural values and ideals through signs, symbols, and colors, something that coats of arms and badges do on a smaller scale with family lineages. Many vexillologists also use their extensive knowledge of symbols to design their own flags, or personal coat of arms, as a way of documenting their own history and value sets.