Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Episode 211: With Flying Colors


This week Shauna and Dan pass the podcasting test "with flying colors"! We explore flags, heralds, banners, and even liveries to find the origins of this phrase. Bonus: Synonyms with Roget, Crowsnests with Ensign Crusher, and Georgian Portia's with Miss Ferguson. #BunnyTrails

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 211: With Flying Colors
Record Date: October 23, 2023
Air Date: October 25, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
People celebrate successes in many different ways and we have just as many ways to describe success. Someone who has handled a difficult challenge with grace, made it through a grueling challenge - like med school, or performed well on a test are often described as having come through with flying colors.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, With flying colors means

With visible or undoubted success; with distinction. Frequently in to come off (also through, etc.) with flying colours.
End Quote

Dan, any guesses at how old this is? Or where it originated?

It is a common belief that this phrase came specifically from maritime language. However, its origins can be traced back to both maritime and heraldic contexts, where "colors" referred to the flags, banners, and standards representing different groups, such as ships, families, or nations.

When a ship returned to port with its colors flying, it was a sign of victory and pride. We can broaden this to include any army or representative group returning or a king and his entourage visiting - they would approach the town with their colors flying.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has two entries for the phrase “with flying colors”. The second is related to this idea of heraldry.

Of a regiment of soldiers, a ship, etc.: with the flag, ensign, or standard flying.
End Quote

Both of these usages of “with flying colors” began to appear in texts around the early 1600s. While we can’t know which came first, we can trace back to the source for both and that is the colors themselves.

Colors is a term that has been used to refer to group representation for a very long time.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following meaning for the word colors has been in use since around 1475.

Heraldry. Any of the major conventional colours used as tinctures in coats of arms (gules, vert, sable, azure, purpure), as opposed to the metals, furs, and stains.
End quote

It also contains an entry for the word colors that began being used around the late 1500s.  

A colour, or each of a combination of colours, which is distinctive or symbolic of an institution or group - as a school, political party, or street gang.
End quote

This usage of the term colors was heavily applied to armies and kingdoms.

One example of this is seen in the 1577 Richard Willes and Richard Eden translation of G. Pereira’s work Peter Martyr of Angleria, History of Travayle West & East Indies.

The kyng hath more than a thousand of his kynne lodged in great pallaces, in diuers partes of the citie: theyr gates be redde, and the entrye into theyr houses, that they may be knowen, for that is the kyng his colour.
End quote

In that excerpt, the color red represents the king and his household.

There was a natural transition for this phrase. Anyone carrying the colors of a group into battle or into a region were generally going to be in a couple of states of being….

Brave - for showing colors in a land that might be under the power or rule of a different group.

Victorious - as returning from battle an army would carry high the banners and flags of their nation or king.

Determined - as an army headed into battle and ready to achieve victory.

Celebratory - as in a kingdom celebrating their king or their people.

While ships definitely flew colors, those colors were the colors of their respective groups - kings, kingdoms, countries, families, companies, etc.

Any of these things - the banners that were carried in war or that hung from homes and castles and posts, or the flags on ships - Any flag or banner or painted object might have been described as flying the colors of a group.

Okay, let's dive into the phrase itself.

It started being used figuratively in the early 1600s. Here is an example from the 1622 work by William Ames titled Reply to Dr. Morton’s General Defense.

He is as it seemeth, a great adventurer: For hee commeth forth upon this peece of service with flying colours.
End Quote

This is describing the individual’s popularity and reputation for successful escapades.

Up next is a work published in 1708 titled A New Translation of Aesop's Fables, Adorn'd with Cutts; Suited to the Fables, Copied from the Frankfort Edition: by the Most Ingenious Artist Christopher Van Sycham By J. J. Gent. [i.e. John Jackson.]

Aesop upon hearing the whole Case, bid him cheer up his drooping Spirits, and rely upon the Counsel he was ready to give him, to bring him off with flying Colours; and accordingly advised him to Address the Senate in this manner.
End quote

Basically, Aesop is claiming he will be providing just the right advice for this person to be completely successful in his Senate address.

The phrase can also be found in the 1724 work titled Terence's Comedies Made English, with His Life, and Some Remarks at the End. By Mr. Laurence Echard, and Others. by Terence, John Eachard, Laurence Eachard, Sir Roger L'Estrange

This excerpt features a conversation between two characters named Antipho and Geta.

Antipho: My Father's at Home.
Geta: That I know, but what then?
Antipho: Pho! a word to the Wife is enough.
Geta: Is it so, Sir?
Antipho: Yes, indeed.
Geta: Very pretty Council, "Saith! You may do it yourself if you please; than't I come off with flying Colours, if I 'scape with a whole Skin upon your own account; but I must needs venture my Neck upon his Account too?
End Quote

So the phrase had adopted that broader usage, representing success, distinction, and the display of one's achievements. It continued to be used in the 1800s in various contexts, including celebrations and academic achievements.

Here is an description from the 1854 work by Anne Elizabeth Baker titled, Glossary of Northamptonshire words and phrases, with examples of their colloquial use, and illustrations from various authors: to which are added the customs of the country

FLYING COLOURS. "To come off with flying colours," is to be eventually victorious; to clear your character from any unjust or foul aspersion. This expression is also used to describe colours which will wash out or quickly fade by exposure to the sun, as distinguished from fast colours, which will bear washing.
End Quote

It was also found in the 1859 work by by Peter Mark Roget:
Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged So as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition

make one's way; to walk over the course; to stem the torrent; to turn the corner; to weather a point; to fall on one's legs or feet; se tirer d'affaire; to turn up trumps; to have it all one's own way; to have the game in one's hands; to have the ball at one's feet; to come off with flying colours; to win, carry, or gain the day; to win the palm; to get the better of; to get the upper hand; to get the whip hand of; to have on the hip; to get the start of; to have a run of luck; to make a hit; to hit the right nail on the head; to reap or gather the harvest; to make short work of; to do wonders; to run on all fours; to carry all before one; to carry the prize; to light on one's legs like a cat; to make the enemy bite the dust; to put to the rout.
End Quote

In the Wood River times January 04, 1892, out of Hailey, Idaho, we see the phrase in an article,

Lena White has applied for a teacher's certificate, and been promised a school on Camas Prairie if she gets it. Miss White is one of the very brightest, most ambitious of the pupils of the Hailey High School, and she will doubtless pass through the ordeal of an examination "with flying colors."
End Quote

It also appeared in The American Jewish world. June 21, 1918, out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I feel that we have now reached the hardest task that has thus far been assigned us, namely, the Thrift Stamp Drive, but I am also confident that the Third ward will come through with flying colors.
Mrs. Stanley Vincent Hodge,
Third Ward Chairman.
End Quote

Next up is an article that I found particularly interesting and led me down a whole new bunny trail.

The Brunswick news July 10, 1921, out of Brunswick, Georgia featured a story about a woman named Edna Ferguson.

Successfully Passed the Rigid Examination, Conducted by Judge Highsmith, at Baxley, on June 29.— Will be Brunswick's First Portia. The many friends of Miss Edna Ferguson will be interested to learn that she is now qualified to practice law In the courts of Georgia, having successfully passed the rigid examination for admission to the bar. Yesterday afternoon Miss Ferguson received a telegram from Baxley stating that she had passed the examination with flying colors, which means that she is a qualified practitioner before the courts of Georgia, as soon as she is sworn in. Miss Ferguson is the first young lady of Brunswick to be admitted to the practice of law, and will therefore be the city's first Portia.
End Quote

Some additional information about the status of female lawyers was described in the Exhibit Guide for a special event Presented by the State Bar of Georgia Young Lawyers Division Women in the Profession Committee in 2016. The event was titled WOMEN IN THE PROFESSION: 100 Years of Georgia Women Lawyers.

The event celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first woman licensed to practice law in Georgia. We will dive into this a little bit more in the behind the scenes which is available to all of our Patrons at

Here is one quote explaining the usage of the term “Portia,”

Women seeking to be lawyers were often called “Portias” in reference to the heroine in William Shakepeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” who disguises herself as a male lawyer. The New England School of Law was known as the Portia Law School, a women-only law school, until 1969.
End Quote

Flying Colours is Book #3 in the Hornblower Saga. by C.S. Forester
Published in 1950. Here is the book overview.

Hornblower is captured by the French and faces execution in a Paris prison in this most satisfying chapter in C. S. Forester's beloved naval adventure series. Forced to surrender his ship, the Sutherland, after a long and bloody battle, Captain Horatio Hornblower now bides his time as a prisoner in a French fortress. Within days he and his first lieutenant, Bush, who was crippled in the last fight, are to be taken to Paris to be tried on trumped-up charges of violating the laws of war, and most probably executed as part of Napoleon's attempt to rally the war-weary empire behind him. Even if Hornblower escapes this fate and somehow finds his way back to England, he will face court-martial for his surrender of a British ship. As fears for his life and his reputation compete in his mind with worries about his pregnant wife and his possibly widowed lover, the indomitable captain impatiently awaits the chance to make his next move.
End Quote

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

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Modern Uses

Alexander Calder created a set of 5 Lithographs on Arches paper titled Flying Colors originally shared in 1974. Here is a description of the work,

Alexander Calder is perhaps best known for his mobiles - or the large, airy, kinetic, suspended sculptures that are found in many prominent collections, such as the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. He was also a prolific draftsman, painter, printmaker, and creator of jewelry. The present work was created by the artist for Braniff International Airlines that contain the Flying Colors Collection blindstamp and published by State Street in New York. Each work is signed with monogram and dated in the stone.
End quote

That was the description from the Alexander Calder website.

Flying Colors By Tim Lefens is a 2003 book. Here is the synopsis from Penguin Random House.

Ten years ago, Tim Lefens was introduced to a group of severely challenged students living at the Matheny School in New Jersey. None of them could walk, only one of them could talk, and all lacked the use of their hands. As a painter facing the gradual loss of his own eyesight, Lefens had come to fully appreciate the power of art, and he was determined to enable the students to paint despite their physical limitations.

Flying Colors is an immensely inspiring story about leaping over obstacles. It is a story of friendship, courage, and the dream that brought a group of forgotten people into the heart of life.
End Quote

Flying Colors is a music supergroup that started in 2008. Here is a little about the band from their website.
It started with a simple idea: virtuoso musicians and a pop singer joining to make new-fashioned music the old fashioned way. A band followed, evolving into Flying Colors: Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals), Dave LaRue (bass), Neal Morse (keyboards, vocals), Casey McPherson (lead vocals), and Steve Morse (guitar). Together, they create a unique fusion of vintage craftsmanship, contemporary music and blistering live performances.
End Quote

One song of theirs I particularly like is You Are Not Alone. It isn’t one that you might recognize but it has a nice sound and feel.

I found this next book on the website

The book is titled With Flying Colors: Color Idioms (A Multicultural Book) by Anneke Forzani, Dmitry Fedorov (Illustrator) and was published in 2020.

What does it mean to have a green thumb?

How do you show your true colors?

Idioms can be confusing, but they help you to understand English and are a lot of fun to learn

With clever multicultural illustrations, idiom meanings, and example sentences, With Flying Colors explains common color idioms in a way that makes them easy to understand. It's a perfect book to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students.

With Flying Colors includes bonus material to support English language learners and promote culturally responsive teaching …

This book is available in English and over 10 Bilingual editions.

With Flying Colors is a great resource to build language skills while having fun.
End Quote

Flying Colors is a series of illustrations by Lee White. One I liked in particular is titled, Fly by the seat of your pants!

This illustration is rather cute, in my opinion. It depicts a girl riding a bike that is soaring in the air, held aloft by two strings attached to the underside of what looks to be a cross between a paper airplane and a kite, complete with cute ribbons trailing behind. Below - on the ground - is a cute little scene of trees and flowers with a sweet bunny.

Flying Colors is another piece of art that I enjoyed. This one is by Jennifer Peck. According to her website,

This piece works well as a set with Across the Boundless Sea. In both, there are parts of party posters I found in Mykonos, Greece. We ripped them off the telephone poles that were stacked thick, advertising the famous parties of Mykonos. If you like Sailing Art, and are also a fan of seascapes, these are for you! The deep indigo colors of the Greek Islands run throughout both pieces. The sails were made from pages of an old book The Romance of the Sea, so upon close inspection, you’ll find part of stories about the history of sailing. The strong contrast of the navy and white make a nice addition to any nautical inspired coastal home. The phrase Flying Colors originated around the 16th century, when ships would return to port with their flags or “colors” either raised high or lowered to signify that the ship had either been successful or defeated. I also like the title because it refers to the colors of the sails, flying across the ocean.
End Quote

Wrap up:
I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot lately. I’m in college classes, as many of our listeners know, and it can be very overwhelming. I’m a person who wants to be perfect at things but rarely am… but maybe, just maybe I’ll pass some of my classes with flying colors.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Which of these Pixar movies have you seen?

Toy Story, Monsters, Inc, and Brave won the day with a majority of Patrons saying Yes to these! Onward has the dubious distinction of being the least viewed among our Patrons.

I saw all the early Pixar movies, but almost none of the sequels. I saw Lightyear on a plane and thought it was really good. I want to see the LATAM inspired movies. Also, the first 4 and a half minutes of Up are the saddest in cinematic history.

Emily said
I’ve seen all but one. Guess I need to track down The Good Dinosaur
End quote

It was the only one on the list we hadn't heard of!

Pat said,
We have seen A Bugs Life many times--a family favorite--and I have not seen the last 4 listed. A good activity awaits catching up during the hot Kansas summer. Basically, seen them all and most more than once!!
End Quote

And Mary shared,
I love movies and I taught elementary school for awhile. We watched movies on rainy days. Some I have seen more than a few times.
End quote

I don’t watch movies very often anymore but I have seen a little over half of these. Most of them made me cry unnecessarily. Talk about tugging at heartstrings… Pixar has a knack for that.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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