Looking over one’s shoulder

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Looking over one’s shoulder  is an idiom with an uncertain origin. 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)