Yank, jerk, or pull someone’s chain

Yank someone’s chain, jerk someone’s chain, and pull someone’s chain are all versions of the same idiom. 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, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, cut the mustard, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, ankle biter, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the meaning of the idioms yank someone’s chain, jerk someone’s chain, and pull someone’s chain, where they came from and some examples of their use in sentences.

To yank, jerk, or pull someone’s chain means to tease someone, to play a practical joke on someone, or to goad someone into overreacting to a situation. Often, the terms yank someone’s chain, jerk someone’s chain, and pull someone’s chain are used in a friendly manner. However, just as often, the term is used in anger, especially as an admonishment such as the exclamation, “Don’t yank my chain!” There are many apocryphal stories on the internet concerning the origin of these phrases. This American slang is known to have been coined in the United States during the 1800s, and are most probably simply related to the practice of jerking the chain that tethers a dog, or jerking a chain that is attached to a prisoner.


“When I was asked to read through the script and to think about getting involved in this podcast I thought it was a joke — like someone was genuinely yanking my chain, but after I read through it, I thought that the concept was really good,” explains Mpumlwana.   (The Independent)

In August, Mayor Sly James visited a PIEA board meeting and accused it of “jerking my chain” by delaying a vote on a resolution of support for the AdvanceKC reforms. (The Kansas City Business Journal)

“Darren showed me the ropes back in the day, pulled my chain a few times as a rookie, which helps you settle in and play with some of the best guys in the world.” (Golf Digest)

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