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. 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.

Examples

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)