This post will cover the language used in the field of decorations and military medals. Of course, the creators and makers of these pieces use their own specialized language, but we should also include the lingo used by the curators and collectors as well. Included here are the terms used to cover insignia, orders, decorations and the medals used in the field.
Numismatics is a term for medals of all kinds, but it also includes coins, tokens, paper money and objects used for money (as wooden nickels, plus the odd and curious forms of money). The person who studies or collects these objects is a numismatist.
Exonumist is a term for the person who studies or collects just medals and tokens, and the field he studies is exonumia (meaning outside of coins). Likewise the term for the field of just orders, decorations and medals (the kind that are worn), is phaleristics. The person who studies or collects these objects is called a phalerist.
There is somewhat of a class distinction among collectors of each of these groups. Because of the royal distinctions of some orders – often the most distinct, elaborate, jewel encrusted medallic items worn by members of a highly select group – these are the most important, the top of the pyramid.
Orders of chivalry go back in history to knights in armor protecting fair maidens. An “order” is both the name of the group as well as the medallic item to be worn (and these include collars worn over the head with an elaborate pendant medal to rest on the chest).
These orders were often made by royal jewelers and had separate classes, sometimes as many as twelve classes from the king down to the lowest knight, each class made of more important size, composition or jewels than those of lower class. [We have none of these in America, we are more democratic.]
Below orders are the decorations – medallic items awarded for gallantry or meritorious service . These can be elaborate, but not as important as orders, and are always distinguished by shape, never round. Because: the medals of a class below decorations are usually round. An example would be campaign medals – those medals hung from a ribbon drape awarded to all who participated in a military or naval campaign.
Since all the medals described above are intended to be worn, there are prescribed rules for the proper wearing of these medallic items on uniforms, formal and civilian attire. Phalerists have come up with a term for all medals that are not worn – table medals – medals that just lie on the … you get the idea.
Phalerists are considered by some to be somewhat elitist. They would not consider collecting – heaven forbid! – table medals or tokens. Tokens have an expressed value, a denomination or “good for” some service or merchandise. These differ from medals – usually of more elaborate design and commemorative in nature – and from coins, which obviously have a denomination guaranteed by a government, obviously more important.
Coins and medals have more integrity than tokens. The latter can be quite simplistic, sometimes as little as the merchant’s name and value. Thus tokens do not rise to the level of coins or medals. Thus ends the class distinction discussion.
There are terms that are common to all fields of medals (and all of numismatics). Thank goodness! Everyone uses these same terms for the same meaning in all of these related fields. Here is a brief list of these:
Obverse. The side of a numismatic item bearing the principal design or device; the side opposite the reverse.
Reverse. The back or opposite side to the obverse.
Device. The principal design element on a coin or medal (not including the lettering); often a portrait or other pictorial design.
Die. A metal punch containing a design to be impressed into a blank by pressure supplied by a press. Obviously two dies are used in striking a medallic item.
Edge. The outer circumference or plane of a numismatic or medallic item formed by the thickness of the piece.
Field or Background. The surface area of a numismatic item not occupied by device, symbols or lettering.
Finish and Finishing. Any process that is performed to a medallic item (coins have no applied finish) after it is struck or cast for coloration or protection; including antiquing, patinating, enameling, plating, lacquering, and such.
Lettering. The wording on coins and medals; there are of two kinds, those that follow the perimeter of the item – the legend – usually in an arc (called bowed), and all other lettering, the inscription.
Loop. Any ring-shaped mounting for suspending a medallic item from a ribbon, cord, chain or other suspension system.
Motto. A slogan appearing as a legend or inscription on a numismatic item.
Planchet or Blank. A round metal disk (or other shape) made for striking into a coin or medal; an unstruck blank or flan.
Press. The machine for impacting a planchet with dies to form a numismatic item.
Rays. Lines on numismatic or medallic items indicating beams of light, as sun rays or radiant light.
Rim. The outermost raised element of a border extending to the edge of the medal.
Symbols and Symbolism. Pictorial elements on coins and medals representing any idea, subject or theme – tangible or intangible – in an artistic way.
Now for the terms that are used for decorations and military medals. Since all these medals are worn, the suspension techniques are most important. Here is the special terminology for suspension.
Loops. A medal to be suspended usually has a loop, these can be soldered onto a medal, or the loop can be engraved into the die and formed at the time the medal is struck. This is called an integral loop. To attach this to something else a jump ring is employed, such a ring does not have its ends welded, but are lapped to permit it to be spread apart, inserted through the eye of he loop, and closed connecting two items.
Loops can be formed in many styles to connect it to a medal. These are named by the shape of the lug which holds the loop: BALL LOOP, BARREL LOOP, CYLINDIRICAL LOOP, KNOB LOOP, WIRE LOOP, and such.
Collars. For an elaborate item such as a collar loops are placed on every element, every link. A chain is often used to connect the elements. The links are repeated until the collar is formed long enough to go over and around the recipient’s head with a pendant medal to rest on the chest.
Each of the links in the collar are diestruck but with loops and jump rings to connect to the next link. The links were often of differing sizes and shapes which when seen together emphasized the theme of the pendant. When these are designed, the loops had to face a way in which the adjacent loop or ring would connect by jump ring. Thus an odd number of loops and jump rings had to connect two elements on the same plane.
Elaborate medals. The British developed elaborate systems for mounting medals. On such system included a number of clasps and bars from which the medal is suspended by a claw and pin which swivels to view both sides of the medal, obviously called swivel mount.
Single medal. However, for single medals these are hung from a ribbon drape, the cloth ribbon would have a ring at the bottom. This would connect to the medal with an integral loop with a jump ring. Every medallic item to be worn requires some form of attaching to a garment, some from of pinback header – by PIN OR CATCH or STEM AND CLASP on the back of the ribbon drape.
Broach mounting. For mounting a number of medals a broach is employed for the medals to be displayed side-by-side. The broach, usually a metal backing or rectangular frame with a horizontal pin and catch, has ribbons placed over the metal backing and sewn in place, or locked into position with the metal frame. When so mounted this is called a group. There is a precise order of precedence. Some nations, including the United States, requires most medals displayed on the left breast – where medals of the highest rank appear from left to right – with other medals worn on the right side.
Ribbons serve a multiple purpose in military use. They add color – and are color coded for identifying each purpose, medal or campaign – and serve as the vehicle for mounting to a garment. The narrow cloth strips are used for most all classes of military medals, from medals of valor to campaign medals. Outside the military field, they are widely used for Olympic, sports and educational awards.
Short lengths of ribbon are made into ribbon bars. These are displayed without the pendant medals in a group and displayed in a row or series of rows on a uniform tunic. Like broach mounting, these must be arranged in order of precedence.
Ribbons are made of cotton or silk, and more recently of rayon; they can be flat or braided. The finish of the cloth can be of several kinds – gros grain (most durable), satin finish, moire and velvet. Ribbons are decorated with bullion embroidery, metal thread, often made into tassels.
Ribbon terms. The largest of such cloth ribbons is the sash, which hangs over one shoulder across the body to the opposite side at the waist. This is substantial enough to support a heavy pendant medal.
The neck ribbon supports a medal hung around the neck. This is used for one of America’s highest awards, then Congressional Medal of Honor. Another style is the bow ribbon, typically for medals awarded to women.
But the most popular style, of course, is the ribbon drape that supports a single medal and is attached to a stem and clasp by which it can be fastened to a garment. There are several ways of folding the ribbon drape and the ends are sewn together after a ring is placed in the fold.
A rosette is ribbon made into a small circular band. It is sometimes applied to a ribbon drape as for a second award of the same medal or for other purposes.
Ribbons do tend to soil and fray with extensive wear. They have the advantage that they can be replaced with fresh ribbon, obtained from ribbon banks operated by collectors organizations. Original ribbon and replacement ribbon are terms used by collectors to differentiate these when it can be so determined.
Collectors also identify the colors in a ribbon when describing or cataloging by listing the colors from left to right, separated by hyphens. An example would be red-white-blue-white-red. Such a ribbon would have a single blue stripe down the center with the border color red on both sides.
Emblem. A small subsidiary metal device to be attached to a ribbon indicating the recipient won the award a second or subsidiary time. The American Oak Leaf Cluster is such an emblem.
Insignia. While this describes any item to be worn, in the military field it includes all orders, badges, collars, medals, stars, and such, kind of an overall term.
The source for the best terms in the field are, obviously, from the Institute of Heraldry. They are very knowledgeable, and the specification sheets for individual medals are precise and identify the proper term for every part.
The best printed glossary in the field was compiled by Alexander John Laslo (1940-2004) who was editor of the official publication of the Orders, Medals Society of America. Under his editorial guidance the journal transformed from black-and-white to full color.
Laslo (Alexander J.) A Glossary of Terms Used in Phaleristics – The Science, Study, and Collecting of Insignia of Orders, Decorations and Medals. Albuquerque NM: Dorado Publishing (1995) 58 pages, illustrated.