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I found a phrase in the headline of today’s Washington Post article (Feb. 14) that reads "Mubarak loyalists change stripes to fit into the new Egypt." Though I interpreted the meaning of change one’s stripes as change sides, I wasn’t sure.

I checked up dictionaries at hand. No dictionary carries change stripes.

So I checked online dictionaries of free Merriam-webster, Cambridge dictionary online, and the thesaurus. com. None of them carries change stripe, except reference.com says refer to “Leopard cannot change its spots”, which seems to me not applicable to the implication of the phrase used in the above headline.

Can anybody tell me the exact meaning of change stripes? Does stripe mean a flag? Is this phrase well-established, though none of dictionary I've checked registers this phrase?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

I found this reference, Yoichi:

The tiger cannot change its stripes. One can't change one's essential nature. For example, He's a conservative, no matter what he says; the leopard cannot change its spots. These metaphoric expressions both originated in an ancient Greek proverb that appears in the Bible (Jeremiah 13:23): “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” It was first recorded in English in 1546.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.

In the case of Mubarak supporters, the writer is implying that -more than changing sides- they're changing (or appearing to change) their very natures. Having once supported the man and his regime, they're now adopting a different coloration as a way to protect themselves in a society that's still reverberating with revolutionary shockwaves. The more common negative usage -that animals (and presumably humans) cannot change their stripes any more than their essential natures- is slightly more common than the positive usage employed here, but both meanings are widely understood.

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fortunate1. This is through explanation. I appreciate your academic imput. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 16 '11 at 11:20
Thank you, Yoichi; I'm only an adjunct professor apart from my day job, but I appreciate the compliment. [EDIT: upon closer reading, the dictionary excerpt is itself poorly written -almost in a telegraphese- but I suppose the meaning is generally conveyed.] – fortunate1 Feb 16 '11 at 11:45
The version “the leopard cannot change its/his spots” is probably more common in modern usage than the tiger/stripes version. – PLL Feb 21 '11 at 3:03
I don't believe this is the allusion. Google Books "tiger cannot change its stripes":27 hits; "leopard cannot change its spots":3740 hits... – FumbleFingers Oct 19 '12 at 17:06
...so either the writer is seriously linguistically incompetent, or it's a (poor-quality, imho) allusion to changing military stripes (switching allegiance, not appearance). – FumbleFingers Oct 19 '12 at 17:08

A tiger cannot change its stripes.

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Respecting all the academic inputs posted so far, I am tempted to add my feelings about tribal (especially African) body paints which (usually in varying stripes) display the individual's loyalty to a particular clan ... and to change the stripes could be switching loyalty...

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Welcome to EL&U, Sibyendu. We appreciate your input. This is more of a "comment" than an answer, but once you have earned enough reputation, you will be able to make comments, which can include opinions and additional information, such as this interesting tidbit. :-) – medica Dec 26 '13 at 10:47

It's apparent that there is no set phrase as "change the stripes". But when they are put together they produce their literal meaning. I checked Merriam Webster's Dictionary and found one entry that goes with the context being discussed here.


3 : a particular type of person or thing
▪ classes for artists of all stripes [=for all kinds of artists]
▪ activists of any/every stripe

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Yes it's from Merriam Webster's Dictionary. – Man_From_India Dec 26 '13 at 13:31
Definition 3 -> learnersdictionary.com/definition/stripe – Man_From_India Dec 26 '13 at 13:36
Thanks Kris for nice edit...it looks good now :) – Man_From_India Dec 26 '13 at 13:41

Safire's Political Dictionary p.722

(…) to change stripes is to make an (almost) irrevocable decision to cross the street to the other party; however, to sit it out or to go fishing means to remain within the party without supporting — but not publicly rejecting — its candidate in a particular election.

To change one's political affiliation/ political views (in adaptation to changes).

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The reading about Egypt and Mubarak means exactly as you looked up in Websters, only with premise and object negated, a valid logical proposition. The expression goes further, in the example cited, by way of casting a measure of aspersion...but without reaization that changing stripes is the most sane thing to do, and should, and eventually will, be cause for admiration.

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