What does the idiom "show one's true colours" mean?

Idioms are generally defined as groups of words that form a meaningful whole when they come together, even though the words in them do not make sense on their own. They have produced many idioms according to their own cultural characteristics in communities using the English language. What does show one's true colours mean? In what situations is show one's true colours used?

Meaning of "show one's true colours"


The idiom “show one’s true colours” is an expression indicating the revealing of one’s true character, usually in a negative light. In other words, an individual’s true weaknesses, intentions, or beliefs that may have been hidden in the past are now being exposed. This idiom is generally used when a person’s original intentions or beliefs are revealed to be different from what was initially thought and it is often used in a negative sense.


The exact origin of the idiom “show one’s true colours” is uncertain. It is thought to have originated in the early 1800s, but the exact source is unknown. It is likely derived from the naval tradition of ships carrying a set of flags—or colours—which would be raised when a ship was approaching a harbour and the flag would indicate what nation the ship represented. As such, captains were sometimes concerned about the possibility of other ships “showing their true colours” and revealing themselves as enemies. Additionally, there is the possibility that the phrase comes from the old proverb “To wear your heart on your sleeve” which would indicate the idea of publicly displaying one’s true feelings or emotions.


The idiom “show one’s true colours” is often used in informal spoken English and is also found in many literary texts. It is primarily used in a negative sense to indicate when someone reveals their true character or intentions which may have been hidden in the past. It can also be used to refer to people who demonstrate a certain behaviour which is different to what was previously thought. For example, an individual could have been perceived to be kind and generous, but then when in a difficult situation, they might “show their true colours” and act selfishly.

Example Sentences

  • He seemed like a nice person at first, but it wasn't until he was in a stressful situation that he showed his true colours.
  • The politician promised the public that he was dedicated to the cause, but soon enough he showed his true colours.
  • It wasn't until the team

The meanings of the words in the "show one's true colours" idiom

Beyond the Literal: Figurative Language in Idioms

Idioms often use figurative language to convey a message that is not meant to be taken literally. For instance, the idiom "bite the bullet" means to endure a painful or difficult situation without complaint, while "hold your horses" means to be patient and wait. Other idioms, like "kick the bucket" or "pop your clogs," use euphemisms to talk about death.


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