With flying colours

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A ship in harbor, flying its flags.

"With flying colours" is a popular proverbial phrase of the English language. The phrase's origins relate to ship flags.

History[edit]

Pirates may have revealed their identity upon boarding the unsuspecting ship to create an atmosphere of fear.[1]

Ships serve scientific and cultural needs, as well as the transportation of goods, and resolving political and national conflict. In the past, without the use of modern communication devices, a ship's appearance upon the immediate return to the port could communicate how the crew fared at sea. Ships that were victorious in their endeavors, for example, an encounter with an enemy ship,[2] would sail into port with flags flying from the mastheads.[3] On the other hand, a ship that had been defeated, if still afloat, would be forced to "strike their colours", or to take them down, signifying their defeat. Although the time period is estimated roughly into the Age of Discovery, prior to the 18th century these phrases[2][3] were used solely as nautical terms,[4] and afterward they began to be used in the vernacular figuratively to signify any kind of triumph. Also, another phrase, "go down with flying colours" or "go down with colours flying"[5] was used to express a commitment; in other words, a resolute crew fighting, even until their ship sinks.[6] A variant of this phrase gives virtually the same meaning, "Nail your colours to the mast". If the colours, or the flag is nailed onto the mast, it cannot be lowered. There is effectively no way to express submission.[4][5]

The word colours as used in the phrase historically was an alternative to saying flag, particularly to display a parties affiliation or allegiance to a nation.[5] The calling of the flag as colours may of course, have non-nautical phrases as colours was used to express patriotism and nationality; other such examples of phrases being "true colours", or "show your colours".[5] Flying, of course, refers to the unfurled flags'[7] position on the masthead, and the variants come off[8] or pass simply mean to have returned from the sea and to pass into the harbor, respectively.

Similarly, the phrase "sailing under false colours" was a reference to a tactic used by pirates or maritime robbers roaming the seas to attack vessels with desired booty.[3] By hoisting a friendly flag,[1] the unsuspecting ship would allow the pirates' ship to approach without resistance, giving the pirates access to board their vessel.[5] Blackbeard famously repeated this process for two years, and sometimes upon sight of their ship, with a pirate flag replacing the deceptive friendly one, the ship would immediately surrender.[1] However, this was not limited historically to pirates, as the British navy had used this tactic when chasing Black Bart Roberts.[5]

Usage[edit]

These phrases have been used many times in literary works, even in modern day writings.[9] "With flying colours" has many variations preceding it, such as to pass..., came out..., and came through...,[9] but all have the same meaning derived from the literal allusion,[4] to be triumphant or victorious,[10][11] honorable or to be publicly successful.[12] "Go down with colours flying" and "Nail your colours to the mast" are used similarly to the nautical allusion, and are phrases to express persistence or stubbornness.[13]

"Sailing under false colours", staying consistent with its nautical origin,[14] is another way to express deception,[15] or to mislead or mystify.[16]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Kirkpatrick, Jennifer. "Blackbeard: Pirate terror at sea". National Geographic. NationalGeographic.com. Retrieved 26 October 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Morris, Evan. "Quit waving that flag and finish your drink". Issue of August 11, 2000. The Word Detective. Retrieved 26 October 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c Ammer, p. 127.
  4. ^ a b c Brewer (2001), p. 271.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Breverton, p. 143.
  6. ^ Cicero, p. 100.
  7. ^ Brewer (1905), p. 475.
  8. ^ Hyamson, p. 148.
  9. ^ a b Bryan, et al., p. 171.
  10. ^ Brewer (1905), p. 553.
  11. ^ Baker, p. 249.
  12. ^ Dixon, p. 119.
  13. ^ Rodale, et al., p. 623.
  14. ^ Lennox, p. 220.
  15. ^ British journal of dental science, p. 352.
  16. ^ British journal of dental science, p. 469.

Sources[edit]

  • Ammer, Christine (1990). Fighting words: from war, rebellion, and other combative capers. Dell. p. 302. ISBN 0-440-20666-9. 
  • Baker, Anne Elizabeth (1854). Glossary of Northamptonshire words and phrases. J.R. Smith. p. 439. OCLC 3141052. 
  • Breverton, Terry (2004). The pirate dictionary. Pelican Publishing. p. 189. ISBN 1-58980-243-8. 
  • Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (1905). Dictionary of phrase and fable: giving the derivation source, or origin of common phrases, allusions, and words that have a tale to tell. Cassell and company. p. 1440. OCLC 2409794. 
  • Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (2001). The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Wordsworth Editions. p. 1158. ISBN 1-84022-310-3. 
  • British journal of dental science 20. Oxford House. 1877. p. 782. OCLC 6046419. 
  • Bryan, George B.; Mieder, Wolfgang (2005). A dictionary of Anglo-American proverbs & proverbial phrases, found in literary sources of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Peter Lang. p. 870. ISBN 0-8204-7947-0. 
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero; Evelyn S. Shuckburgh; William Melmoth; Frederick Charles Tindal Bosanquet; Pliny, the Younger (1909). Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero: with his treatises on friendship and old age. P. F. Collier. p. 438. OCLC 10821423. 
  • Dixon, J. M. (1891). Dictionary of idiomatic phrases. T. Nelson & co. p. 384. OCLC 68136801. 
  • Hyamson, Albert Montefiore (1922). A dictionary of English phrases: phraseological allusions, catchwords, stereotyped modes of speech and metaphors, nicknames, sobriquets, derivations from personal names, etc., with explanations and thousands of exact references to their sources or early usage. Routledge. p. 365. OCLC 1038747. 
  • Lennox, Doug (2007). Now You Know Big Book of Answers. Dundurn Press Ltd. p. 496. ISBN 1-55002-741-7. 
  • Rodale, Jerome Irving; Urdang, Laurence; LaRoche, Nancy (1978). The synonym finder. Rodale. p. 1361. ISBN 0-87857-236-8. 

External links[edit]