Definition of white feather in English:

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white feather


A white-coloured feather used as a symbol or mark of perceived cowardice. During the First World War young men seen not wearing uniform were sometimes presented with such a feather, as part of a campaign to induce men to enlist for military service: on his first trip out in civilian clothes, he’d been handed two white feathers
More example sentences
  • When young army officer Harry Feversham loses his nerve on the eve of being despatched to the Sudan, his three closest colleagues brand him a coward by sending him white feathers.
  • Those who did not want to join the military could be targeted by people as cowards - being handed white feathers and being refused service by shops and pubs etc.
  • His mates send him white feathers, the sign of cowardice, and his brain goes into shock.


show the white feather

British dated Behave in a cowardly fashion: he showed the white feather and ordered a general retreat
More example sentences
  • Donegal's tails were up following the success of their footballers, but Mayo, according to all reports, had no intention of showing the white feather and stood up to all Donegal could unleash in seven minutes added on.
  • Therefore, we shall have nobody but ourselves to blame if our children show the white feather or lack of confidence in whatever they seek to accomplish.
  • To ‘show the white feather’ was therefore to be ‘unmanly’.


Late 18th century: with reference to a white feather in the tail of a game bird, seen as a mark of bad breeding.

For editors and proofreaders

Line breaks: white fea¦ther

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