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?

3 Answers 3


I found this reference in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) by Christine Ammer:

leopard cannot change its spots, a Also 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 wording of this entry remains unchanged in the second edition of Ammer's dictionary (2013).

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.

  • fortunate1. This is through explanation. I appreciate your academic imput. Commented Feb 16, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 21, 2011 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... Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 17:06
  • 2
    A Google n-gram viewer search for "change * stripes" reveals that zebras or tigers being unable to change their stripes is in fact the original context for this imagery, which is used since about 1800, and more widely since about 1900. My intuitive reading has always been that the stripes of an animal here serve as a metaphor for a military uniform, which itself represents affiliation to a party or faction. A tiger cannot exchange his stripes for those of a zebra, i.e. it will always be a predator, and neither can a zebra change its stripes and become a predator.
    – user86291
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 8:22

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).


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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