Where The Phrase Pass With Flying Colors Really Comes From

It is interesting how idioms can influence writing, literature, and spoken language. A lot of us unknowingly quote some of the phrases England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon" William Shakespeare reportedly invented more than four centuries ago, such as "a laughing stock," "fair play," "mum's the word," and "vanish into thin air" (via ThoughtCo). "To set the record straight," if anyone takes idioms literally, they're in for a "rude shock." For example, someone getting "cold feet" does not mean they are anaemic — it simply means they are nervous (via dictionary.com).

According to ERIC, Barron's "Dictionary of American Idioms" contains more than 8,000 idiomatic words and phrases to help native and non-native English speakers improve their fluency. The figurative way to express an idea, feeling, or content often has historical roots. For example, "once in a blue Moon" originated in the mid-19th century when blue moons, or the second full moon in a month, were rare (via Sky&Telescope). You've probably heard an equally popular phrase, "pass with flying colors." Ever wondered what it really means and where did it come from?

A double entendre

Per Cambridge Dictionary, to pass with flying colors means to be highly successful. The phrase is commonly used in schools when a teacher congratulates an outstanding student on achieving a remarkable feat or cracking a tough examination and often says, "Great job! You passed with flying colors." It could be a high school exam, a test for a driver's license, the Olympic Qualifiers, a job interview, an important legislative bill, or a litmus test. The phrase "pass with flying colors" generally indicates that someone or a group has convincingly achieved a rather tricky task (via Grammarist).

However, you'd be surprised to know that the phrase did not always mean doing exceptionally well. The origin of the phrase has nothing to do with passing a test or flying or colors. But it does involve the act of "passing" and "flying," and the use of "colors." Confused? Let's clear the air.

The phrase has a nautical history

According to Mental Floss, though the phrase "with flying colors" first appeared in William Ames' "A Reply to Dr. Mortons Generall Defence of Three Nocent Ceremonies" in 1622, naval ships used "colors" to refer to their flags since the late 16th century till the 18th. During naval warfare, if a ship returned home or "passed" the harbor with "flying colors" or their flags unfurled, it would communicate to the countrymen they had been triumphant. On the contrary, if the battleships returned home beaten, they would "strike the colors" or lower the flags to signify defeat.

As a result, all sorts of phrases were coined to express numerous warfare events. For example, "striking the colors" or lowering the flags became an act of surrender (via History). A damaged ship that preferred to fight than surrender would defiantly indicate its intention by "nailing the colors to the mast" or signalling the flags will not be lowered (via word histories). "Sailing under false colors" became synonymous with ships sailing under stolen flags, and when they suddenly attacked a close unsuspecting ship, it was called "showing their true colors."

The phrase "with flying colors" was commonly used as a nautical term in the Age of Discovery; however, after the 18th century, "pass with flying colors" or "come off with flying colors" became popular to signify different kinds of success.