Submitted by marta  •  August 10, 2004

Flying (with) Colours?

Why are the colours flying in the idiom “to do something with flying colours”?

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Marta,

I keep replying to your email, but you don't seem to get it.

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The saying is "to pass with flying colours", i.e. in reference to passing an exam or test. My instinctive guess would be that it is something to do with flags.

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Dave, you're right. The "colors" are flags, and a ship from one country that emerged victorious in a sea battle with a ship from another country would have its own colors "flying." The colors of the losing ship would have been confiscated by the winner. Or so I understand.

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I like Speedwell's explanation. In that case an exam is like a battle, if we win (pass) it we have our colours (flags) flying, if we don't we end up as losers.

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Found this today. It's interesting, and it contains a first use of the phrase. I should mention that "colors" is, if I'm not mistaken, the official british and American Navy word for the flags.

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Ah. Sorry. Eating popcorn on my lunch hour. :) Here's the link.

http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/6/mess...

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