Back the wrong horse and bet on the wrong horse

Back the wrong horse and bet on the wrong horse are two versions of an idiom that has been in use for centuries. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idioms back the wrong horse and bet on the wrong horse, where they came from, and some examples of their idiomatic usage in sentences.

To back the wrong horse or to bet on the wrong horse are idioms that mean to support a losing cause, to promote a loser, to make the wrong decision about which outcome will be successful. The phrases come from the sport of horse racing, and refers to placing one’s wager on a horse that loses the race. The expressions back the wrong horse and bet on the wrong horse are as old as horse racing, but the idioms became very popular in the latter 1800s, especially when used to describe political races. Of the two variations, bet on the wrong horse has become more popular since the mid-twentieth century. Related phrases are backs the wrong horse, backed the wrong horse, backing the wrong horse, bets on the wrong horse, betting on the wrong horse.


Australia could choose not to wake up in a couple of decades wondering where our collective prosperity went because we continued to back the wrong horse in the face of all the evidence. (The Guardian)

Alexander Zevin examines the newspaper’s influence on liberal history — and its tendency to back the wrong horse (The Financial Times)

Woojune Kim, the head of global sales at Samsung’s network business, told a British parliamentary committee in July: “You could say that we placed our bet on the wrong horse.” (The Los Angeles Times)

As it turned out, JE Dunn bet on the wrong horse, as the Kansas City Council voted in September to select the terminal modernization team led by Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, based in Bethesda, Md. (The Kansas City Business Journal)

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