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I wonder if someone knows the actual origin and oldest printed record of the idiom "show true colours?" Other than this popular theory (seems not real to me):

This phrase dates back to the 1700s. It has a nautical origin and refers to the color of the flag which every ship is required to fly at sea. Pirates used to deceive other ships by sailing under false flags so that they would not excite suspicion. The other ships, thinking that the pirates were friendly, sailed close to them and fell under their grip. It was only after the attack that the pirates would show their 'true flag'.

References:

  1. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/show_one%27s_true_colors
  2. https://www.idioms.online/show-your-true-colors-to/
  3. https://www.theidioms.com/show-true-colors/
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    Why does that seem strange to you. Sailing under a false flag has been a maritime tradition forever. It was not only used by pirates, but all manner of ships that were sailing in hostile waters. Smugglers, ordinary traders, privateers, military vessels, fishing vessels poaching fish, ... But privateers and military ships were honor bound to only engage with the enemy under there own flag. Flags were used to signal the attack. – Phil Sweet Mar 25 at 10:42
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    "Under maritime law, it was perfectly legal for one ship to fly a “false flag” to chase an enemy ship or to try to escape, though “it is universally agreed that immediately before an attack a vessel must fly her national flag,” as a 1914 law journal article said."Columbia Journalism Review – Phil Sweet Mar 25 at 10:42
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    I think the explanation is believable, and didn't only apply to pirates. I've read a lot of nautical historical fiction (based on contemporary accounts), and apparently it was quite common for naval vessels in wartime to get close to an enemy ship by flying the flag of another country; but you had to show your own colours before actually attacking. – Kate Bunting Mar 25 at 10:43
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    Pirate ships would fly the Jolly Roger before their attack, not out of honour, but to instill fear in their prey in the hopes they would surrender without a fight. The false flag would allow them to get close. – Weather Vane Mar 25 at 10:48
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    Note that even outside of this expression, the word colors in plural has long meant "an identifying badge, pennant, or flag" - see definition 6 a of color (n). – Canadian Yankee Mar 25 at 18:01
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The OED's first citation is 1551, from Thomas Becon, A Fruitful Treatise of Fasting, which describes how Satan "setteth forth him selfe in his true colours". It's also in Shakespeare, Henry IV Pt 2 (1600) act 2 scene 2: "How might we see Falstaffe bestow himself to night in his true colours, and not our selues be seene?"

The sense of "colours" meaning livery (or some other show of allegiance) is older than Becon. But there are also a lot of metaphorical senses for "colour" that may be relevant.

The OED's definition of "colour" sense II.7.a is "Apparent or de facto legal authority or status, esp. as opposed to that actually granted or established. Frequently with negative connotations, suggesting that the authority is used as a pretext for illegal or corrupt behaviour (cf. sense 8). Chiefly in colour of authority, colour of law, colour of office. Now chiefly U.S." This goes back to 1325

Sense II.8 is "Outward appearance; show, aspect, or semblance of something, esp. as justifying a particular judgment, course of action, etc. Frequently, esp. in later use, with the implication that the appearance is false and used as a pretext. Now chiefly in legal contexts (see sense 7a)." This also goes back to 1325 with several late medieval/early modern uses.

There are various similar senses. None of this indicates the exact origin of the phrase, but you ask for the earliest example. It's clear "true colours" could mean some (often false or misleading) sign of authority or status, with various expressions about appearing, displaying, etc, these colours.

Reference: "colour | color, n.1". OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.nls.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/36596?rskey=mb4ZyY&result=1&isAdvanced=true (accessed March 25, 2021).

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  • yes, using the current meaning of colour leads down the path of thinking about flags while the figurative use widens the scope- I was just reading my OED of Eymology when your answer came up, its entry “the figurative senses ‘semblance’, ‘pretext’ are ME” – Wade B Mar 25 at 16:57
  • Thank you very much Stuart. After your research, do you also believe that the phrase has a nautical origins? – Juniper Scott Mar 26 at 12:07
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Here's an example of the phrase in actual use.

The Florida flew the British flag till she was fired at , when she hauled it down , and ( according to Captain Semmes's account ) hoisted Confederate colours . The unlucky Captain of the Oneida said in his report that his enemy “ had no flag to fight under . ” The discrepancy is immaterial , since she did not attempt to fight ; the only rule being that a ship may not fire without showing her true colours .

It is more to do with the rules of war between countries, rather than pirate ships. But it certainly comes from ships in war flying the flag of other countries, with a legal requirement that they lower false colours and show true colours before engaging in combat.

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  • Thanks, Pete. Is it the oldest example you can find? – Juniper Scott Mar 25 at 14:16
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    I wasn't looking for oldest. I was looking for an illustrative example of its use in the context of a naval deception. There are definitely older examples, but they might not be clear what it means. – Pete Mar 25 at 16:00

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