show the white feather

white feather

noun Chiefly British.
1.
a symbol of cowardice.
Idioms
2.
show the white feather, to behave in a cowardly manner.

Origin:
1775–85; orig. from a white feather in a gamecock's tail, taken as a sign of inferior breeding and hence of poor fighting qualities

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Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
white feather
 
n
1.  a symbol or mark of cowardice
2.  show the white feather to act in a cowardly manner
 
[from the belief that a white feather in a gamecock's tail was a sign of a poor fighter]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Etymonline
Word Origin & History

white feather
as a symbol of cowardice, 1785, supposedly from game-cocks, "where having a white feather, is proof he is not of the true game breed" [Grose].
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

show the white feather

Display cowardice, as in The minute Bob put up his fists, Bill showed the white feather and backed down. This expression comes from cockfighting, where a white feather in a bird's tail is considered a sign of inferior breeding. [Early 1800s]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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