I'm watching The Wire and in the Wikipedia article about one of the characters (Wallace) it is written "He betrays his age when he is found playing with toys while supposed to be on lookout duty."

I have not found any explanation of this idiom to betray your age anywhere on the Internet. I see it in two opposite ways:

1) To behave as you were younger than you really are. Explanation: Wallace was 16 years old and he was playing with toys which was inappropriate for this age.

2) To reveal your age. As if your age was an entity and it asked you to hide itself, but you revealed it in your behavior. Explanation: Wallace despite his age was supposed to be serious given that he was assisting drug dealers, but everyone saw that he was really a 16 years old boy when he was found playing with toys.


2 Answers 2


It's not an idiom, it's simply one of the established meanings of the word "betray".

As the OED has it one meaning of "betray" is:

unintentionally reveal; be evidence of:

she drew a deep breath that betrayed her indignation

or from Merriam-Webster

to show (something, such as a feeling or desire) without wanting or trying to

So your second suggested interpretation of the sentence is essentially correct - Wallace revealed his age (almost certainly unintentionally) by playing with toys when he should have been keeping watch.


"Betray" cannot be used in the sense to be used to denote something like "he left behind his age of sixteen, and momentarily reverted to earlier childhood". This is because betray has strong connotations of deception and wrong doing (to others): betraying some trust like cheating on a spouse, or delivering someone to the hands of his enemies, that sort of thing. There is no bond of loyalty to one's age.

I suspect what is making that particular use instance confusing is that play with toys is not an earmark of age sixteen, as you aptly observe in your point (1). Moreover, normal sixteen-year-old boys can certainly handle responsibility without forgetting what they are supposed to be doing to run off and play. What's actually going on is that the scene does reveal something: not the boy's chronological age, but rather his unusual development status relative to his age, due to his background of having disrupted his childhood by joining a gang. It's not you, it's the text; I find it quirky also.

Be that as it may, the intended meaning of "betray" is almost certainly "to reveal".

  • 6
    In The Wire the manner in which these young men grow up is an essential theme. They start working the corners well before their teens and learn the 'hard man' way of life. With such an outward aura of confidence and bravado, many would seem to be older than their actual age. So I would say that the phrase "betrays his age" is an entirely valid choice of words to illustrate how the veneer of worldliness has been peeled away by a momentary lapse in the pretence of being older, and the reversion to an instinctive behaviour which is more age-appropriate, i.e. playing with toys.
    – toandfro
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 9:25
  • This seems more like "lit crit" (in as much as it can be, re: a wiki article) than an answer to the actual question. Whether or not you think the choice of words appropriate, I think it's quite clear what the writer intended to mean (as you addressed in your second- and third-to-last paragraphs.) The first half of your answer seems quite confusing to me, and while we always appreciate context and I'm glad the OP included it, the question was asking for the meaning of betrays his age; I don't know that a criticism of its use in this context is relevant.
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 21:31
  • @WendiKidd it is relevant because in the absence of that context, there is no reason for it to be confusing. I believe that Graduate would not have been confused by "betrays his age" were it not for the quirky use. I have significantly condensed the answer in light of your comment, while retaining that important aspect.
    – Kaz
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 21:43

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