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True colors, false colors

Posted by ESC on October 07, 2000

In Reply to: "Shows his true colors" posted by ESC on October 07, 2000

: : I've looked all over for the meaning and origin of this nautical phrase but I have not been able to find anything on it. Please Help. ("shows his true colors")

: I'm not having any luck either. It's a common phrase that I thought would be easy to find. However, I have looked without success in two nautical expression books and several general phrase books. I am guessing that it refers to the practice of pirates flying (or sailing?) under false colors. Then revealing their "true colors" when close enough to their prey to attack. Anyone have any ideas?

I couldn't find "show his true colors," "true colors," OR "colors." But scored when I looked under "false colors." I think this explains the other phrase:

FALSE COLORS, TO SAIL UNDER - " 'I had so much wisdom as to sail under false colours.' Robert Louis Stevenson, St. Ives . To pretend to have a different view or character so as to deceive; deliberately misrepresent. The term comes from a tactic used by pirates, maritime robbers who roamed the seas and attacked the vessel of all nations. Especially rampant during times of unrest, pirates preyed on commerce from the times of the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks until about 1825, when a concerted effort by the United States and Great Britain finally destroyed their last North African, European, and West Indian strongholds. To deceive the ships they preyed on, pirates would often run a 'friendly' flag - that is, they displayed false colors to fool their victims and lure them close enough to they could be overwhelmed. The term false colors had began to be used figuratively by 1700 or even earlier." From "Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and other Combative Capers" by Christine Ammer (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, Ill., 1989, 1999).