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late 14c., via Scottish, from Old French enseigne (12c.) "mark, symbol, signal; flag, standard, pennant," from Latin insignia (plural); see insignia. Sense of "banner, flag" is c.1400; that of soldier who carries one is first recorded 1510s. U.S. Navy sense of "commissioned officer of the lowest rank" is from 1862. French navy had rank of enseigne de vaisseau since at least early 18c.
(1.) Heb. 'oth, a military standard, especially of a single tribe (Num. 2:2). Each separate tribe had its own "sign" or "ensign." (2.) Heb. nes, a lofty signal, as a column or high pole (Num. 21:8, 9); a standard or signal or flag placed on high mountains to point out to the people a place of rendezvous on the irruption of an enemy (Isa. 5:26; 11:12; 18:3; 62:10; Jer. 4:6, 21; Ps. 60:4). This was an occasional signal, and not a military standard. Elevation and conspicuity are implied in the word. (3.) The Hebrew word _degel_ denotes the standard given to each of the four divisions of the host of the Israelites at the Exodus (Num. 1:52; 2:2; 10:14). In Cant. 2:4 it is rendered "banner." We have no definite information as to the nature of these military standards. (See BANNER.)
heraldic symbol carried on a flag or shield. The term is much misunderstood because of the popular use of ensign as a generic term for flag. A grant of arms or a matriculation (registration of armorial bearings) may in its text use the term ensigns armorial to mean the heraldic design of the bearer's arms. See heraldry.