Q&A: The origin of ‘with flying colours’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a colourful history…

Q: Hi AWC, if someone does well in an exam, why do we say that they passed “with flying colours”?

A: Good question! It can also be applied to anything relating to success. For example, handling a difficult situation, you might “come through with flying colours” or the in-laws' Christmas dinner might be “negotiated with flying colours”. 

Q: Sure, but most of the time it’s passing something, yeah?

A: It can be. Passing a driving test with flying colours. End of year exams. 

Q: Mandatory urine drug test…

A: If you’re getting flying colours from that one, you may wish to see a doctor.

Q: True. So, why all the flying and colours?

A: It actually comes from flying unicorns and rainbows.

Q: Oh wow. Really?

A: Pfffft, NO.

Q: I hate you.

A: The actual origins of “with flying colours” can be found in the Golden Age of Discovery.

Q: Golden age? What’s that? The age of the four women in that sitcom The Golden Girls? Did you know they were only between 51 and 63 when that first aired?… Hmmm, but I don’t think it was on the Discovery channel.

A: No, we are NOT referring to the ages of Betty White and friends. We’re talking about the period of time roughly covering the 16th to 18th centuries – when sailing ships from Europe explored so-called ‘new worlds’ (this was news to the indigenous residents) and traded goods across the globe.

Q: Oh, so like in Pirates of the Caribbean?

A: Well yes, the “golden age of piracy” did kick off around 1700, so Captain Jack Sparrow and his friends would have likely featured.

Q: You do know they’re not real, right? That those were just movies, yeah?

A: Yes, we know. 

Q: It was just a wobbly Johnny Depp with eye makeup. You know that, right?

A: Yep.

Q: Okay good. 

A: We’re getting off topic a little. Shall we return to flying colours?

Q: Ah yes! Please do.

A: Okay, so the Online Etymology Dictionary dates the first recorded use of the term “flying colours” to the 1690s, but it was clearly around for some time before that. It came about through “colours” being another word for “flags” – that had been a thing in a nautical sense since the 1580s.

Q: Aha! “With flying flags”!

A: Exactly – flapping in the breeze. If you had been victorious in battle – or some other mission perhaps – you would fly your “colours” from the mast upon your return, to communicate the good news to those on the shore.

Q: Classic rule – “show don’t tell”.

A: Haha, yes, sure. Ships returning “with flying colours” had been successful while away. 

Q: What about unsuccessful? Was that a “white flag”?

A: Nope. If you were beaten in battle, you would simply “strike your flags” – removing them all. No white required. Ships returning to port after an unsuccessful mission would fly no colours.

Q: So Dido was right. “I will go down with this ship… there will be no white flag above my door…”

A: Um okay. Not sure she was singing about 17th century naval warfare though.

Q: Hey, love is a battlefield…

A: Whatever you say. Anyway, the idea of “colours” – flags or insignia – can be seen in other phrases like “nail your colours to the mast” (a refusal to surrender) or more generic ones like “show your true colours” (exhibit your actual self).

Q: So Cyndi Lauper was right?

A: Sure, if you say so. And your friend Captain Jack Sparrow even features – with the practice of “sailing under false colours” often employed by pirates; flying a friendly flag to lure a ship alongside and then breaking out the “skull & crossbones” when it was too late. 

Q: You do know that Jack Sparrow isn’t actually my friend, right? That he’s just a character in a film? Yeah?

A: Yes yes, we get it. But the modern term “false flag” has origins with that pirate technique.

Q: Speaking of pirates, what lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?

A: What?

Q: A nervous wreck! Bahahahaaaaa!

A: Groan. So anyway, some say that “passing” with flying colours is related to a ship sailing by – or passing – the shore with the flying colours. But that’s probably just been retrofitted into the modern usage of achieving something by passing. Merriam Webster Dictionary simply lists “flying colors” (no “U” in American English!) as “complete success” – giving the example “he passed his exams with flying colors”.

Q: So “passing” there just means completing?

A: Exactly. Either way, there’s not a lot of room for confusion with a saying like this. These days it’s all about doing anything with “triumphant success”.

Q: Wow, we certainly have travelled down the road and back again today. Thank you for being a friend.

A: Is that the theme to The Golden Girls?

Q: No comment. 

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