I’m researching the origins of the white feather as a symbol of cowardice. The earliest reference I can find is in Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Does anyone know of any earlier occurrences?

  • 1
    Is this question about using white feathers themselves as symbols or about the metaphorical use of the phrase white feather? The former would be outside the domain of this site.
    – jsw29
    Mar 11, 2021 at 17:47
  • Related: history.stackexchange.com/questions/42520/…
    – user 66974
    Mar 11, 2021 at 19:35

1 Answer 1


The OED uses Grose's dictionary as its first source and adds

  1. A white feather as a symbol of cowardice. [...]With allusion to the fact that a white feather in a game bird's tail was considered a mark of inferior breeding.

1785 F. Grose Classical Dict. Vulgar Tongue White feather, he has a white feather, he is a coward, an allusion to a game cock, where having a white feather, is a proof he is not of the true game breed.

Grose's example, game cock/breed is a use of "game" in the hunting sense and OED game, adj. 1. Of a person or animal: full of pluck, spirit, or fight; spirited, plucky; intrepid. Also applied to actions, attributes, etc.

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