An expression in use since the 1800’s.
To show your true colors means to reveal your true character, feelings, opinions, etc.
This idiom is always used in a negative sense, to describe someone who seemed to be a better person than they turned out to be once their ‘true colors’ came out.
Examples Of Use
“Mike showed his true colors today. He refused to give me time off to visit my grandmother in the hospital.”
“My roommate seemed like a good guy but as soon as I went out of town he showed his true colors by stealing my stuff an pawning it, then pretending we were burglarized.”
“Narcissists can be very charming but they always eventually show their true colors.”
When this expression first came into use, it had the form “to come out in one’s true colors.” For example, in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens: “[He] who didn’t venture…to come out in his true colours.”
During the 1600’s an earlier idiom was in use, “to sail under false colors.” This alluded to a trick used by pirates of flying the flag of a nation friendly to the ship they were planning to attack. This would allow the pirate vessel to come close enough to attack and board while having the element of surprise. To show one’s true colors has the same origin, referring to a person who is “flying false colors” but has now shown their real colors. We can see that ‘colors’ means character, feelings, opinions, etc.
A similar idiom, no longer in use, is to nail one’s colors to the mast. Ships could raise and lower flags on the mast at will, but a flag which had been nailed to the mast could not easily be removed, thus a person who had nailed his colors to the mast was a person who was stubborn, obstinate, unyielding, etc.
Also related to ships carrying flags is the expression with flying colors.
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