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What It Means to "Pass a Test With Flying Colors"

Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She writes articles that are interesting to her readers.


Common Expressions

We hear common expressions all the time. Some we know what they mean and some we have no idea what they mean or the origin of them.

When school students take exams, we might hear them say, "I passed my math test with flying colors." Of course, the expression sounds like that was a good thing, but what's behind that saying?

Flags are called colors on ships.

Flags are called colors on ships.

Passing a Test with Flying Colors

Once you know the meaning of that expression, it will mean even more to you. The idiom is actually a very good one even though the origin has absolutely nothing to do with exams or colors of crayons in a box.

To pass an exam with flying colors simply means the student got a very good mark on the test and was victorious over the whole experience. So, what do flying colors have to do with a test?

The popular idiom relates to flags on a ship like the ones shown in the photo above. The flags are called colors, and they fly or wave in the wind when the ship is moving.

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To pass with flying colors means to pass a test with a high mark or with distinction. The meaning of the expression has a nautical origin. It came about when ships returned home from battles, the flags (or colors) were flying to show they had been victorious. Had they been defeated, no flag would be flying in the wind.

A fleet sailing into the harbor with flags still flying lets onlookers know that the mission was victorious.

Flags on ship

Flags on ship

Not Limited to Ships

The popular idiom in the English language is not limited to ships or flags when it comes to taking a test.

To come through something with flying colors means to successfully have achieved a difficult objective, such as passing an exam with a high mark. The exam could also be a medical exam, an exam for a driver's license, or any other test that you passed to achieve something.

Today, the expression means someone was victorious in a mission. The idiom is used figuratively to describe any kind of triumph.

Use the Idiom

Now that you know what the idiom means, try using it when you have an occasion to do so. Remember, it is not limited to a test. It can be used when you accomplish a task or some other important assignment successfully.

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