Have a tiger by the tail

  • Have a tiger by the tail is an idiom that has been in use since the late 1800s, though its popularity rose exponentially in the 1900s. 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 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 in a blue moon, 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, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom have a tiger by the tail, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.


    To have a tiger by the tail means to be in a situation that is dangerous to proceed with and dangerous to escape from. The image is of holding on to a tiger’s tail–as long as you have hold of the tail, the tiger cannot harm you. However, holding onto the tail is dangerous because at any minute the tiger may wrest itself free and eat you. At the same time, it is impossible to let go of the tiger because you will not be able to escape before it pounces on you. The expression have a tiger by the tail is derived from a Chinese proverb: “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” This aphorism was translated into English in the 1870s.



    What the work of Greenland Minerals demonstrates is that a small Australian company appears to have a tiger by the tail with both China and the U.S. showing interest in the Kvanefjeld project — all the way up to a very senior government level. (Forbes Magazine)

    He was similarly modest about Calvary’s success: “I have at times felt like I have a tiger by the tail and I was just trying to hold on.” (The Virginian-Pilot)

    “I knew we did great work,” said Fritzberg, who previously worked at United Way of King County, “but when I saw the numbers, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a tiger by the tail.’” (The Seattle Times)

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