Have a target on one’s back

The idiom have a target on one’s back has an uncertain origin. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kicked the bucket, blow off steam, piece of cake, hit the sack, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the meaning of the idiom have a target on one’s back, what it refers to, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To have a target on one’s back means to be the focus of someone’s anger, to be singled out as someone to persecute, to be identified as someone’s main rival. For instance, making a serious error at work may put a target on your back. This means the boss will watch you carefully to see if you make other mistakes; he may have already made up his mind that he will fire you and simply wants an excuse. Having a target on one’s back means that you are subjected to more scrutiny than you may have otherwise been subjected to. Related phrases are has a target on one’s back, had a target on one’s back, having a a target on one’s back. The idiom have a target on one’s back has an uncertain origin, but has been in use since at least the mid-1900s.


“I just know that each game I have to prove why I’m No. 1, because I have a target on my back,” said Andrews, rated the seventh-best player in the nation in the Class of 2020 by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. (The Dallas Morning News)

“I don’t like to think about favorites but I knew a lot of people had me as the favorite so there was a target on my back,” Armitage said. “I knew that was going to make it tough.” (The Providence Journal)

Councilor Steven Camara is out, having had a target on his back ever since he was the lone vote against the measure to remove Correia from office and then was heard pouring his heart out to defend the mayor in the now-infamous leaked audio from LePage’s where Correia unveiled his secret plans to game the election with write-ins. (Fall River Herald News)

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