13

When I’m reading U.S. newspapers reporting Presidential campaign almost every day, and watching consistency and inconsistency of the claims of candidates or nominees in their speeches at rallies and press interviews, I feel like I’m getting to know what really they are like.

Whatever you say, it becomes clear who you really are over the long term and through repeated tests, no matter how you decorate yourself beautifully. When we recognize one’s true character, we call it “メッキが剥げる- the gilding comes off (and shows true color of the ground metal)” in Japanese saying.

I'm curious to know if there is the similar figurative expression to “the (gold) plate comes (peels) off” in English. Is there the one?

  • I would expect that, like English, Japanese has many idioms that refer to revelation of something once concealed. Unfortunately it seems answerers are laying out as many of those idioms as they can think of. – 01d55 Aug 29 '16 at 4:39
  • I don't speak Japanese, but this may be one of those situations where a more literal translation would evoke the nuance of the Japanese expression better than shoehorning an English idiom that doesn't quite fit -- "The gilt wears thin" would be immediately understandable to anyone who knows what "gilt" is, and doesn't carry the sense of malice or deliberate deceit implicit in most (all?) of the answers. Nothing wrong with coining a phrase... – jkf Aug 30 '16 at 18:42
  • We do have a similarly structured idiom - cracks in the facade - but it has a somewhat different meaning. It suggests a weakness or vulnerability has been exposed, rather than true colors. It might be used to suggest that a coalition's public show of unity is falling short of the mark. – Phil Sweet Aug 30 '16 at 21:53

14 Answers 14

33

It's common to call this showing one's true colors similar to the way you described it in your question. Wiktionary:

Verb
show one's true colors

  1. (idiomatic) To reveal how one really is, as opposed to how one has been portrayed or after having been deceptively and deliberately misleading.

The usual form is colors rather than color, because as Wiktionary goes on to say, the expression is of nautical origin:

The word 'colors' (or 'colours') refers to the flag or ensign which every ship is obliged to fly at sea. It was once a common deception of pirates to 'sail under false colours' and fly a friendly flag in order to get within close range of potential targets (other ships) without exciting suspicion. Only when the pirate ship reached close quarters would it unfurl its 'true colours'.

To be completely clear, a ship's flag is always referred to as its "colors" in the plural, certainly because a flag generally has multiple colors which define it.

  • 1
    Yes, though what color means in this context is quite variable. Another possibility is a skin metaphor. The proverb is Beauty is only skin-deep, meaning that physical attractiveness is a very shallow phenomenon. This one speaks of some good trait being skin-deep, i.e, not genuine, put on for display, etc. – John Lawler Aug 28 '16 at 1:24
  • 5
    Or peel back the veneer – Kris Aug 28 '16 at 1:27
  • 3
    @JohnLawler, I believe the expression, "show one's true colors" refers to wearing the uniform of the enemy as a disguise, or when a ship sails flying the flag (colors) of another nation. Pirates typically didn't sail around flying a black jolly roger as that would tend to draw attention and alert would-be victims. – Noah Spurrier Aug 28 '16 at 4:34
  • 6
    The wiktionary entry actually has pretty definitive insight on this: Nautical origin. The word 'colors' (or 'colours') refers to the flag or ensign which every ship is obliged to fly at sea. It was once a common deception of pirates to 'sail under false colours' and fly a friendly flag in order to get within close range of potential targets (other ships) without exciting suspicion. Only when the pirate ship reached close quarters would it unfurl its 'true colours'. A flag is always referred to as "colors" in the plural, certainly because a flag generally has multiple colors which define it. – Daniel Aug 28 '16 at 12:11
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    Inview of the number of upvotes your comment attracted, why don't you include that info in your answer? – user193059 Aug 29 '16 at 16:11
11

I'm going to suggest the idiom the mask slips. Here's an example of the usage from The Handbook of Communication and Aging Research by J Nussbaum and J Coupland

Signs of the unchanging element of identity— the inner self— can occasionally be glimpsed when the mask slips....

  • Virtue has a veil, vice a mask. – Victor Hugo – rhetorician Aug 28 '16 at 23:52
  • This is the one I'd use. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 29 '16 at 12:27
4

The idiom

Once you scratch the surface [ ... ] [+ independent clause]

is very similar, but connotes (at least) an unmasking agency.

I can't find authorities listing this (there are plenty for the look-alike 'We're only scratching the surface'), but it's quite common. Here are a couple of examples from the internet:

[O]nce you scratch the surface on a man like that, there's nothing underneath.... He can't be trusted to make a commitment and keep it. Like I said, he's simply no good. [Silver Linings by Jayne Ann Krentz]

......

"Once you scratch the surface," he [Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica Forum] says of the J.P. Morgan disclosure, "a lot of other things come out." [Andrew Meier, FT]

And one showing a more general usage:

Once you scratch the surface, pseudonyms are rarely straightforward.

  • This looks like the best fit so far. – 01d55 Aug 29 '16 at 4:41
4

I submit that "the bloom is off the rose" might capture the sense of shinyness wearing off over time from the Japanese expression; this feels to me like a slightly old fashioned expression, but google ngrams shows increasing popularity in the second half of the twentieth century: Bloom is off the rose.

  • I think this comes closest. – user175542 Aug 28 '16 at 21:39
3

A leopard can't change its spots.TFD

Something that you say which means that a person's character, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend it has

"I doubt very much that marriage will change Chris for the better. A leopard doesn't change its spots."

  • Nah, nah, it's "a leopard can't change its shorts". :D – Eiríkr Útlendi Aug 29 '16 at 3:17
  • @Eiríkr Útlendi I doubt Groucho would have agreed. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 29 '16 at 12:28
  • also, a tiger can't or doesn't change its stripes – Graham Aug 29 '16 at 15:27
  • Thought experiment: Groucho and Pratchett walk into a bar... – Eiríkr Útlendi Aug 30 '16 at 0:41
3

A wolf in sheep's clothing is someone who appears to be benign, harmless or part of a team but is actually dangerous, hostile or working against the team.

  • 1
    This also exists in the German language: "Ein Wolf im Schafsmantel" which is just the literal translation. – MinecraftShamrock Aug 28 '16 at 20:46
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    @MinecraftShamrock, I think this expression is very common in western civilization, because of the christianism. In portuguese is equal, 'Lobo em pele de cordeiro'. – Vinicius Monteiro Aug 29 '16 at 17:32
3

The existing answers contain good idioms for the case where the person was hiding their true colours. That is, that they were pretending to be who they were not.

There is a related phenomenon, where the candidate doesn't necessarily hide anything, but people initially gloss over the parts they don't like. This is idiomatically called the honeymoon period. When the gloss wears off, the sentiment turns, and the honeymoon period is over. Note that idiomatically, the period of grace is called a honeymoon period, not just a honeymoon.

honeymoon period noun a period of popularity enjoyed by a new government, or a new occupant of a post ⇒ The honeymoon period is over., ⇒ Brett is enjoying a honeymoon period with both press and public. - Collins

3

In English1 you can use (wood) veneer instead of gold: "Labour’s thin veneer of control is peeling off". That matches the Japanese idea quite closely. With respect to the elections: Trump's veneer of a successful, law-abiding, tax paying business man has started to peel.2 With Hillary Clinton, the veneer of an honest, altruistic benefactor has peeled off long ago.

More often though veneer is simply used figuratively for a good-looking thin layer which covers something more ugly, without the peeling (but obviously the speaker has somehow seen through it). A very common use is "the thin veneer of civilization" (over the underlying barbarism which allegedly is the true nature of man).


1In German, we use paint and say "der Lack ist ab" (the varnish is off). That is not quite as bad as veneer or gold, I think, because paint is usually recognizable as such. The phrase conveys a feeling of sobering rather than betrayal.
2 He will at some point have to deport himself, I'm afraid.

2

Another option is draw the curtain. Here is the entry for that phrase in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

draw the curtain 1. Pull a curtain back or to one side to let in more light or to discover what is behind it. For example, The sun was so pleasant I drew the curtains. {c. 1500} 2. Block or conceal something. For example, Let's draw the curtain over the matter; no one needs to no more. {c. 1500}

Meaning 1 above is the appropriate sense for purposes of this question. People sometimes distinguish it from the contradictory meaning 2 by adding the word open after it, as in the example from Lara Biyuts, La Arme Blanche (2012):

Those who cannot discern lies and truth will see only a fiery-tale. But a wise man can draw the curtain open and perceive the point.

We shall draw the curtain open as well, in order to research some aspects of symbolism and the origin of so-called folklore.

And from Geoffrey Block & J. Peter Burkholder, Charles Ives and the Classical Tradition (1996):

On a small scale, Ives breaks into the highly dissonant, rhythmically driving music of the "Hawthorne" movement of the Concord Sonata to present a brief fragment of hymn music (which also pre-echoes the music of the "Alcotts" movement), just as Mahler intersects the trio of the third movement of his Seventh Symphony with occasional sudden bursts of faster music. In both cases, it is as if a curtain is drawn open, giving view to a different and totally unexpected musical landscape.

In the United States, much of the resonance of the image of drawing a curtain open to expose a fraud (or in other words, the actual person rather than the larger-than-life image) comes from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy's dog Toto pulls a curtain back to reveal that the huge fiery head addressing Dorothy and her friends is actually a smoke-and-mirrors trick concocted by a flimflam man of modest aspect. The man's last-ditch effort to avoid detection is to roar through a loudspeaker positioned near the head,

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

That expression has become a catch-phrase in the United States representing the last, futile effort of an exposed fraudster to dupe the public.

2

From the observer’s point of view, you could consider the figurative sense of
“see[ing] through someone or something”:
1. Lit. …
2. Fig. to understand or detect the true nature of someone or something.
“You can't fool me anymore. I can see through you and all your tricks.”
“This plan is designed to make money for you, not to help people. I can see through it! I'm not a fool!”
(McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, via The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

see through somebody/something
to understand the hidden truth about someone or something
“She saw through his excuse as an effort to put the blame on someone else.”
(from Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, via The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

see through
1. see through someone or something . Understand the true character or nature of someone or something, as in “We saw through his superficial charm: he was obviously a liar.” [c. 1400]
2. …
(from The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, via The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

see through v.
1. To apprehend one's true nature or character despite some affectation or deception:
“We saw through his superficial charm.”
2. …
3. …
(from The American Heritage® Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, via The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

To the extent that one’s ability to “see through” someone/something doesn’t necessary depend on the gradual peeling-off of the observed person’s/thing’s gilded façade, for the façade can be so thin that the ugly truth is there for all to see (through to) from the outset, you could consider adding “beginning” to the phrase to better capture the gradual nature of the realization, as is done in the headline of this article from The Australian Financial Review:
Bill Shorten: 'Australians beginning to see through Turnbull'

2

I wouldn't say it's idiomatic, but a quote from T.S. Eliot seems apropos (Webster is the dramatist John Webster):

Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin;

"The skull beneath the skin" is referenced in novels, plays and music, though not always with the same context.

2

To let the cat out of the bag -- to give away a secret.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, there is no sense in pretending we don't know what's really happening.

0

Not a perfect fit, but related nonetheless. Here's a famous quote from The Dark Knight:

"You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

DustinDavis says:

It's highly likely that the the quote originated from 'The Dark Knight' movie. Apparently Batman (and other super-heros) was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher. A lot of aspects of Batman are inspired by Nietzsche's beliefs which would explain why the movies seem very philosophical at times.

0

"Until the shine wears off" as referenced here may be close, though slightly different than other answers here.

I propose this because there is no actor or agent, the revelation simply occurs, similar to the original idiom.

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