Tiger by the Tail – Idiom, Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Having the tiger by the tail is just one of the thousands of idiomatic expressions we use in the English language. But the true meaning of this phrase has been lost over the years. Personally, I believe we should understand the definition behind the idioms we use because it deepens the intent behind them. So, let’s talk about what tiger by the tail really means.

Tiger by the Tail Meaning Explained

Tiger by the Tail Idiom Origin Meaning

The common expression tiger by the tail refers to any situation where people find themselves involved in some kind of problem or circumstance that’s more formidable or troublesome than they’d initially thought, and they have to proceed with it. It specifically shows a situation that’s rather difficult to control or let go of without facing the potential danger or consequences that come with doing so.

Other Versions of the Phrase

You’ll see and hear other variations of the idiom. Just remember that they all hold the same overall meaning.

  • Take the tiger by the tail
  • I’ve got a tiger by the tail
  • Have a tiger by the tail
  • Holding a tiger by the tail

Origin and Etymology of Tiger by the Tail

Tiger by the Tail Ngram
Tiger by the tail usage trend.

The actual root origin of the phrase tiger by the tail is difficult to pinpoint. But there is an ancient Chinese proverb from 1875 that translates as “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.”

It’s supposed to highlight the predicament of being in a dangerous situation that’s just too risky to abandon until it’s done.

Tiger by the Tail Synonyms

  • To bite off more than one can chew
  • Playing with fire
  • Open Pandora’s box
  • To let the genie out of the bottle
  • On a sticky wicket (popular in British English)

Tiger by the Tail Examples in a Sentence

Tiger by the Tail Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • After investing heavily in the volatile cryptocurrency market, Jack felt like he had a tiger by the tail, but it was too late to back out now.
  • Taking on the renovation of the old house seemed like a great idea in the beginning, but now I feel like I’ve got a tiger by the tail because the more we look, the more problems we find.
  • Our company caught a tiger by the tail when we took a chance and started dealing with a notoriously unpredictable supplier.
  • Creating a pre-order listing for a book I’d yet to fully write felt like grabbing the tiger by the tail because that promise now binds me to readers, and I’m running out of time to write.

Proceed with Caution

Now you finally know how to utilize this phrase in conversations and writing. Play around with the versions I gave you and see which fits best. Just remember that all forms of the idiom boil down to one intent: biting off more than you can chew and having to follow through with it. Check out my other idiom breakdowns and see what else you can learn!

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