white feather

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

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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World English Dictionary
white feather
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
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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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

white feather

see show the white feather.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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Example sentences
The priest took his wand-which, with its bouquet of folded paper, resembled a
  white feather duster-and touched it to the flames.
Harry is given a white feather by four of his friends, a public repudiation.
Immature cranes are a reddish cinnamon color that results in a mottled
  appearance as the white feather bases extend.
The eagle staff is topped by a deer antler that holds a small white feather.
Idioms & Phrases
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