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Have one’s ears pinned back vs pin one’s ears back

To have one’s ears pinned back and to pin one’s ears back are two phrases that are extremely similar but have very different meanings. We will examine the difference in meaning between these two phrases and where they are most often used, as well as some examples of their use in sentences.

To have one’s ears pinned back means to be severely scolded or to be bested in an athletic contest, soundly. The idiom have one’s ears pinned back is an American phrase that came into use in the mid-1800s. Its origin is uncertain. Some say it is derived from the sport of wrestling and some say it is somehow linked to the emotional state of an animal with its ears pinned back, though both of these explanations seem rather dubious. It may be more likely that the phrase have one’s ears pinned back is related to some sort of physical punishment that has gone out of common use. Related terms are has one’s ears pinned back, had one’s ears pinned back and having one’s ears pinned back.

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To pin one’s ears back means to listen carefully, to pay attention. To pin one’s ears back is a British phrase, its origin is no more certain than to have one’s ears pinned back. Related terms are pins one’s ears back, pinned one’s ears back, pinning one’s ears back. Remember, to have one’s ears pinned back, an action that is metaphorically performed on a person means to be scolded or bested, to pin one’s ears back, an action that is metaphorically performed by a person, means to pay attention.

Examples

The Obama administration overplayed their hand in using federal power and money to push an education agenda and there is a strong feeling that the Secretary and the U.S. Department of Education need to have their ears pinned back and their authority reduced. (The Vail Daily News)

For the full sensory experience, pin back your ears; you’ll hear nightingales trilling, woodpeckers drumming and willows warbling. (The Daily Mail)

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