Looking over one’s shoulder

Looking over one’s shoulder  is an idiom with an uncertain origin. 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 common in American slang or British slang, 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 common saying looking over one’s shoulder, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Looking over one’s shoulder means that one is worried that something bad is going to happen. Looking over one’s shoulder is a phrase that may be used to describe a situation in which one is paranoid, or when one has a legitimate reason to be worried. The idea is that one is watching for someone or something to sneak up upon oneself. Looking over one’s shoulder has a second definition: to supervise someone too closely. For instance, one may say that a micro-managing boss is always looking over one’s shoulder, presumably to check one’s work. Related phrases are look over one’s shoulder, looks over one’s shoulder, looked over one’s shoulder. The idiom looking over one’s shoulder has an uncertain origin; however, its popularity soared during the twentieth century.


Brady has reigned supreme for two decades, winning a half-dozen Super Bowls, but now he’s looking over his shoulder at Mahomes, who is off to the fastest start in the history of the game. (Deseret News)

Joe explained that one of his biggest influences was a Ross Kemp documentary about Glasgow where the actor “spent most of his visit looking over his shoulder like he was in Kabul”. (The Scottish Sun)

“I do appreciate why he did it, he was very clear that he thought if he wasn’t going to be the chair going forward, he would give me all the space I needed to take on the leadership role without feeling he was looking over my shoulder or pulling the strings.” (Farm Weekly)

Leave a Comment