Whipping Boy—An Idiom Beyond Punishment

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

A whipping boy refers to a person or thing that takes the blame for an action or behavior they didn’t do. The idea stems from the literal practice of physically punishing someone for another’s crimes (usually of high-born birth). 

Idioms such as whipping boy are words or phrases that have taken on a figurative meaning separate (although often related) from its literal inception. They are popular within informal speech, and learning their use and nuances can help you elevate your understanding of the English language. 

This article covers the idiom’s deeper meaning, origin, and proper usage in different contexts. It also provides tips for effective usage, example sentences, and related terms and phrases. So, keep reading to explore ways to use whipping boy in your own materials. 

What Does the Idiom Whipping Boy Mean?

Whipping Boy Origin Meaning

The idiom whipping boy means a person who is blamed or punished for the failings or actions of others. Another way to explain this unfair label is to compare a whipping boy to a fall guy or as a scapegoat. This definition can also extend to a group of people or even an entire entity, like a business department or a political ideology. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the expression is used as a noun to describe “someone or something that is blamed or punished for problems that are caused by someone or something else.” Similarly, Collins Dictionary defines the idiom as “a person who is made to bear the blame for another’s mistake.”

To provide a modern and relevant example of how the idea of a whipping boy can be used, take a look at the current state of the education system. This is a hot topic that many people have an opinion on.

As a long-time educator, I find it interesting that certain districts will force training on an entire staff when only a small percentage of teachers are struggling in their area of study.

Qualified and proven instructors shouldn’t become the whipping boys of a district that fails to differentiate what is occurring in one classroom to the next. This practice takes away from quality instruction and planning and, unfortunately, is becoming an acceptable norm. 

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of the idiom whipping boy refers to a boy who was historically assigned to receive punishment on behalf of a royal or noble child. Figuratively, whipping boy is used to describe someone who is unfairly blamed or punished for the mistakes or misdeeds of others.

How Is the Idiom Whipping Boy Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom whipping boy is frequently used to describe situations where one person is unfairly blamed or punished for the mistakes or misdeeds of another.

Let’s explore the various ways this idiom is employed in everyday language, discover examples of its usage, and learn some tips for incorporating it effectively into our conversations and writing. 

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Whipping Boy?

The following illustrates how the idiom whipping boy is employed in various contexts to describe unfair blame or punishment:

  • In blame games: “When things go wrong at work, Bellamy is always the whipping boy, even though it’s not his fault.”
  • Social dynamics: “Within their friendship group, she often feels like the whipping boy, bearing the blame for misunderstandings that aren’t her doing.”
  • Historical references: “In medieval times, the young prince’s friend served as the whipping boy, enduring punishment in his place for any royal misbehavior.”

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom Whipping Boy?

  • Literature: Classic novels, plays, and literature often reference the concept of a whipping boy. An example is The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman.
  • News and opinion articles: Articles discussing unfair blame or punishment, scapegoating, or instances where a person is made to bear the consequences for the actions of others.
  • Historical accounts: Books or articles on historical practices, particularly those related to monarchies or nobility, may provide insights into the historical use of whipping boys.
  • Everyday conversations: The idiom can also be found in everyday conversations, particularly when discussing situations where someone is unfairly blamed or held responsible for the actions of others.

It’s also being quoted by some online news publications, like this example:

Media is made whipping boy by all sections while the other pillars of democracy—Legislature, Judiciary, and Executive—got away enjoying all privileges, observed the Editor of Andhra Bhoomi Telugu daily newspaper M.V.R. Sastry here on Monday. [The Hindu News]

What Are Some Tips for Using Whipping Boy Effectively in Sentences?

To use the idiom whipping boy effectively in sentences, consider the following tips:

  • Contextualize the situation: This helps readers or listeners understand the specific scenario or concept being described.
  • Provide clarity: Ensure that the sentence clearly conveys the idea of someone being unfairly blamed or punished for the mistakes or actions of others. 
  • Use descriptive language: Employ vivid and descriptive language to enhance the impact of the idiom. 
  • Maintain consistency: Ensure that it aligns with the concept of someone bearing blame or punishment for the actions or faults of others.
  • Consider tone and audience: Take into account the tone and audience you are addressing. 

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Whipping Boy?

whipping boy Ngram 1
Whipping boy usage trend.

A whipping boy was an official position in the English royal court during the 15th and 16th centuries. A high-born boy was chosen to be the companion to a royal prince and was educated alongside him, receiving many of the privileges of royalty. However, if the prince committed a transgression, the whipping boy was punished in his stead. 

The philosophy was that if a prince saw his friend punished, he would suffer greatly and be sure to behave. A commoner, such as a tutor, could not lay a hand on a royal prince, and the use of a whipping boy solved this problem.

The first documentation of whipping boy in its literal context is from the 17th century in John Trapp’s writings A commentary or exposition upon the five books of Moses

“Rebuke before all: yet not as if they were whipping boyes.”

It is again used to specifically reference the whipping boy of the young King Charles I, William Murry, the nephew to the prince’s tutor. This occurrence was recorded in 1715 by Gilbert Burnet in History of His Own Time:

“William Murray of the bed-chamber, that had been whipping boy to King Charles the first.”

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

The term whipping boy isn’t used as an allusion until much later, with the first known use seen in The Times in 1857:

“Or will the public still have reason to say that M. Migdeon, even supposing all that has been brought against him true, is merely the whipping boy?”

By then, the use of the term in a figurative sense had caught on and was made even more popular in Mark Twain’s publication The Prince and Pauper in 1881 in Canada and 1882 in America:

“Of a surety thou must remember me, my lord. I am thy whipping-boy.”

What Are Some Related Terms to Whipping Boy?

Understanding terms related to the expression whipping boy helps you use the idiom in your materials. Consider both synonyms and antonyms to provide the proper context, and in appropriate cases, use them in place of the idiom to avoid overuse. 

Whipping Boy—An Idiom Beyond Punishment 1


  • Scapegoat
  • Patsy
  • Fall guy
  • Sacrificial lamb
  • Martyr
  • Blame recipient
  • Guilt-bearer
  • Punching bag


Whipping Boy: Test Your Knowledge!

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Let’s Review

The idiom whipping boy describes someone who is blamed or punished for another’s actions. It is often used to place blame, highlight social dynamics, or describe the historical references the term originates from. 

Despite its very literal inception that offered the punishment of a prince to a boy in his stead, whipping boy is now used figuratively in the English language to put the blame on the shoulders of an innocent party. The term highlights the presence of scapegoating, unfairness, and the shifting of responsibility to someone or something that doesn’t deserve it. 

This article covered its meaning, usage, origin, and various related terms so that you can best decide how to use the expression in your own materials. Read up on other idioms on our site to enhance your language skills.