Once Bitten, Twice Shy – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

I just love idioms. They make sense when we use them, and most people understand their idiomatic meanings. But when you stop and think about it, they sometimes hardly make sense, like the phrase “once bitten twice shy.” What does that really mean, and where did the saying come from? I’ll explore all the details right here.

What Does Once Bitten, Twice Shy Mean?

Once Bitten Twice Shy Idiom Meaning Origin

The commonly used idiomatic phrase “once bitten, twice shy” is said when someone has been hurt or had a bad experience in the past, so they’re far less likely to take risks or make the same mistake again in the future. In other words, they’ve learned their lesson and are now more cautious.

As a Romance writer and reader, I see this phrase used all the time in books where the hero or heroine has been scorned once by love and refuses to let their guard down again.

I used to work in construction, and another similar saying comes to mind when I think of this one, “measure twice, cut once.” This came about because someone learned the hard way that if you don’t double-check before you get too far, you could be making a huge mistake and won’t know until it’s too late.

Is There a Comma in ‘Once Bitten, Twice Shy’?

Yes, to be grammatically correct, you should use a comma in the phrase “once bitten, twice shy.” The comma separates the two clauses and clarifies the meaning better.

Origin of the Phrase

It came about in the English language around the beginning of the 19th century, but it was coined by author Eliza Fowler Haywood in her book “The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless” in 1751, where it states, “I have been bit once, and have made a vow never to settle upon any woman while I live, again.”

Who Said Once Burned, Twice Shy?

The similar phrase “once burned, twice shy” is actually (and very obviously) just a variation of “once bitten, twice shy.” They both express the same meaning, and you can always use them interchangeably. There’s no one person who said it first; it’s just evolved over time.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy Synonyms

  • Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
  • Once stung, twice shy.
  • Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.
  • Once hurt, twice shy.
  • First impressions are lasting.
  • A burnt child dreads the fire.
  • I won’t be going down that road again.
  • A beaten dog cowers before friendly hands.

Examples of Using Once Bitten, Twice Shy in a Sentence

Once Bitten Twice Shy Idiom Meaning Origin 1
  • I’m not investing in any more of your flighty business ideas again; I got burned last time. Truly said, once bitten, twice shy.
  • My brother hesitates to start a new relationship because his last one ended badly — once bitten, twice shy.
  • I definitely learned my lesson about buying things online without reading the reviews and looking at user pictures first. Once bitten, twice shy.

Just Remember

Sure, “once bitten, twice shy” might be an older phrase, but it’s still relevant and makes sense today. You can use it in any situation where you or a character you’re writing is weary over trying something for a second time for fear of repeating the same negative results from the first time around.

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