True Colours

Posted by Lewis on March 10, 2003

In Reply to: Color Me... posted by Henry on March 07, 2003

: It was being used as long ago as 1969.
: From the song Calgary written by Ian and Sylvia of Great Speckled Bird;
: Color that jet plane going,
: Color me gone.

: Presumably it comes from the instructions in a children's colouring book and means to give an appropriate colour or description to something or someone.
: It may have a literal association with "to show one's true colours."

"Colours" in that context means the flags, ususally of an army regiment - although also used on battleships. The colours were the individual insignia of a particular fighting force and served as a reminder to be loyal and valiant. The Romans had their eagles to remind the soldiers they fought for (SPQR senatus populus-que Romanus) the senate and people of Rome and even tribal warriors had a pole. In the non-uniformed and pre-electronic age, the colours showed who was where and allowed troops on a battlefield to find their own lines if they got separated from their unit. Often troops would be wearing near-identical battledress or not be distinguishable by clothing, so standards were vital to avoiding "friendly fire" incidents. At the battle of Barnet in the 14th century there was a massive implosion of the Lancastrian army caused by poor visibilty and allies attacking each other by mistake. Following the formation of a uniformed and regimented standing army, it was a matter of great shame for a regiment to lose their colours to the enemy.

Ships would sometimes show false colours to deceive another ship, as like soldiers, the ships from one side of a conflict were not distinguishable by being uniform. sometimes ships would be captured and so unless they flew the colours, another ship would not know their allegiance. So 'to show ones true colours' is fundamentally a naval term. It goes along with 'nailing one's colours to the mast' which was literally what one could do to avoid them being swapped or being removed in battle. Knocking off the mainmast could still take out those colours, but otherwise they were there for the duration.

"Colour me" appears a relatively modern use and sounds as if it comes from the 'painting by numbers' line of amusements. I can first recall it being used on some 1960s folk-hippy track.

...I'll get me beads and greatcoat.