White feather

White feather
A white feather is sometimes given as a mark of cowardice.

A white feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used and recognised especially within the British Army and in countries associated with the British Empire since the 18th century. It also carries opposite meanings, however: in some cases of pacifism, and in the United States, of extraordinary bravery and excellence in combat marksmanship.


A symbol of cowardice

The white feather as a symbol of cowardice comes from cockfighting and the belief that a cockerel sporting a white feather in its tail is likely to be a poor fighter. Pure-breed gamecocks do not show white feathers, so its presence indicates that the cockerel is an inferior cross-breed.

World War I

In August 1914, at the start of the First World War, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather with support from the prominent author Mrs Humphrey Ward. The organisation aimed to coerce men to enlist in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform.[1]

The campaign was very effective, and spread throughout several other nations in the Empire, so much so that it started to cause problems for the government when public servants came under pressure to enlist. This prompted the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, to issue employees in state industries with lapel badges reading 'King and Country' to indicate that they too were serving the war effort. Likewise, the Silver War Badge, given to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness, was first issued in September 1916 to prevent veterans from being challenged for not wearing uniform.

Roland Gwynne, later mayor of Eastbourne (1929–1931) and lover of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams, received a feather from a relative. This prompted him to enlist, and he subsequently received the Distinguished Service Order for bravery.[2] The writer Compton Mackenzie, then a serving soldier, complained about the activities of the Order of the White Feather. He argued that these "idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired". The pacifist Fenner Brockway claimed that he received so many white feathers he had enough to make a fan.

In fiction

Cyrano de Bergerac

The last scene of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac refers to a white feather.

Cyrano: "...For there is one thing I have left, void of smear or stain, and I take it with me despite you."
Roxanne: "And that is?"
Cyrano: "My white plume."

The words in French are "mon panache", and in fact the play introduced the word "panache" into English. The meaning is left to the reader.

The Four Feathers

The adventure novel The Four Feathers (1902) by A. E. W. Mason tells the story of Harry Faversham, an officer in the British Army, who decides to resign his commission the day before his regiment is dispatched to fight in Sudan (the 1882 First War of Sudan, leading to the fall of Khartoum). Harry's three fellow officers and his fiancée conclude that he is resigning in order to avoid fighting in the conflict, and each send him a white feather. Stung by the criticism, Harry sails to Sudan, disguises himself as an Arab, and looks for the opportunity to redeem his honour. He manages this by fighting a covert war on behalf of the British, saving the life of one of his colleagues in the process. On returning to England he asks each of his accusers to take back one of the feathers.

The romantic idealism of the novel has been popular for over a century and it has been the basis of at least seven feature films, the most recent being The Four Feathers (2002), starring Heath Ledger.

The White Feather

Five years later P. G. Wodehouse published The White Feather, a school story about apparent cowardice and the efforts a boy went to in order to redeem himself by physical combat.

To Serve Them All My Days

In this 1980 BBC production, David Powlett-Jones, a shell-shocked Tommy, takes a position in a boys' school. Suspecting that fellow teacher Carter may be avoiding war duty, he muses, "I'd give a good deal to know whether he's really got a gammy knee", to which an acerbic colleague responds, "I suppose we couldn't get some chubby cherub to give him the white feather" as a means of accusing the suspected malingerer.

"Downton Abbey"

In the first episode of the second season of Downton Abbey some women, presumably members of the Order of the White Feather, interrupt a benefit concert to hand out white feathers to the men who haven't enlisted.

In music

The Order of the White Feather was the inspiration for the Weddings Parties Anything song "Scorn of the Women", which concerns a man who is deemed medically unfit for service when he attempts to enlist, and is unjustly accused of cowardice.

In 1983, new wave band Kajagoogoo released their debut album called White Feathers, whose opener was the title track, a light-hearted allegory for weak people, whereas the final track, Frayo, had a political flavour, referencing cowardice as the cause for an unchanging war-torn world.

It is also mentioned in songs by English post-punk/garage band the Horrors. These songs are "Three Decades" and "I Only Think of You".

2010 the Australian Rock band Wolfmother released their new album "Cosmic Egg", whose third track is "White Feather".

A symbol of pacifism and peace

In contrast, the white feather has been used by some pacifist organisations as a sign of harmlessness.

In the 1870s, the Māori prophet of passive resistance Te Whiti o Rongomai promoted the wearing of white feathers by his followers at Parihaka. They are still worn by the iwi associated with that area, and by Te Ati Awa in Wellington. They are known as te raukura, which literally means the red feather, but metaphorically, the chiefly feather. They are usually three in number, interpreted as standing for "glory to God, peace on earth, goodwill toward people" (Luke 2:14). Albatross feathers are preferred but any white feathers will do. They are usually worn in the hair or on the lapel (but not from the ear).

Some time after the war, pacifists found an alternative interpretation of the white feather as a symbol of peace. The apocryphal story goes that in 1775, Quakers in a Friends meeting house in Easton, New York were faced by a tribe of Indians on the war path. Rather than flee, the Quakers fell silent and waited. The Indian chief came into the meeting house and finding no weapons he declared the Quakers as friends. On leaving he took a white feather from his quiver and attached it to the door as a sign to leave the building unharmed.

In 1937 the Peace Pledge Union sold 500 white feather badges as symbols of peace.

In religion, particularly Christianity, a white feather is often interpreted as a message card from heaven, brought by angels.[citation needed] It is seen as a sign of peace and a message from a departed loved one in heaven, affirming that they are well. British broadcaster Gloria Hunniford for instance claimed that a white feather fell at her feet during the funeral of her daughter Caron Keating when there was no evidence of where it came from in the surroundings. She claims to often finds white feathers in unusual places such as studios etc which she believes are a message card from angels from her daughter.[3]

In music

In 1985, progressive rock band Marillion released a concept album entitled Misplaced Childhood, whose final track, "White Feather", was an explicit reference to pacifist idealism.

Other symbolism

In the United States, the white feather can symbolise superior combat marksmanship. Its most notable wearer was Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, who was awarded the Silver Star medal for bravery during the Vietnam War. Its wear on combat headgear flaunts an insultingly easy target for enemy snipers.[4]


  1. ^ Guardian review of We Will Not Fight...: The Untold Story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors by Will Ellsworth-Jones
  2. ^ Pamela Cullen, "A Stranger in Blood: The case files on Doctor John Bodkin Adams", 2006. P626
  3. ^ "'Caron sends me messages from Heaven': Gloria Hunniford on how she copes four years after the death of her daughter". Daily Mail. 18 September 2008. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1057623/Caron-sends-messages-Heaven-Gloria-Hunniford-copes-years-death-daughter.html. Retrieved 3 March, 2011. 
  4. ^ Charles Henderson. Marine Sniper, New York: Berkley Books, 1986. (ISBN 0-425-18165-0)

External links


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • White feather — White White (hw[imac]t), a. [Compar. {Whiter} (hw[imac]t [ e]r); superl. {Whitest}.] [OE. whit, AS. hw[imac]t; akin to OFries. and OS. hw[=i]t, D. wit, G. weiss, OHG. w[=i]z, hw[=i]z, Icel. hv[=i]tr, Sw. hvit, Dan. hvid, Goth. hweits, Lith.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • white feather — ► NOUN ▪ a white feather given to someone as a sign that they are considered a coward. ORIGIN with reference to a white feather in the tail of a game bird, being a mark of bad breeding …   English terms dictionary

  • white feather — n. [from the notion that a white feather in a gamecock s tail shows bad breeding, hence cowardice] an indication of cowardice: chiefly in show the white feather …   English World dictionary

  • 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] …   Etymology dictionary

  • white feather — If someone shows a white feather, they are cowards …   The small dictionary of idiomes

  • White Feather — Filmdaten Deutscher Titel: Die weiße Feder Originaltitel: White Feather Produktionsland: USA Erscheinungsjahr: 1955 Länge: 102 Minuten Originalsprache: Englisch …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • white feather — noun Etymology: from the superstition that a white feather in the plumage of a gamecock is a mark of a poor fighter Date: circa 1785 a mark or symbol of cowardice used chiefly in the phrase show the white feather …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • white feather — Chiefly Brit. 1. a symbol of cowardice. 2. 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] * * * …   Universalium

  • white feather — n. symbol of cowardice to show the white feather * * * [ symbol of cowardice ] to show the white feather …   Combinatory dictionary

  • white feather — noun a white feather given to someone as a sign that they are considered a coward. Origin C18: with ref. to a white feather in the tail of a game bird, being a mark of bad breeding …   English new terms dictionary

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