Understanding the Idiom: "beat the bishop" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Uncertain; see bash the bishop. Compare also beat one's meat.

When it comes to idioms, there are some that can be quite confusing for non-native speakers. One such idiom is “beat the bishop”. This phrase may sound strange and even offensive to those who are not familiar with its meaning. However, understanding this idiom is important for anyone who wants to improve their English language skills.

To begin with, it’s worth noting that “beat the bishop” is a slang term that has been around for many years. It refers to masturbation or self-pleasure. Although this may seem like a vulgar topic, it’s important to understand that slang terms are often used in informal settings or among friends.

The origins of this idiom are unclear but it’s believed to have originated in Britain during the 19th century. Over time, variations of this phrase have emerged such as “choke the chicken”, “spank the monkey”, and “polish your rocket”.

Despite its crude connotations, “beat the bishop” has found its way into popular culture through various mediums including movies and music. As a result, it’s become more widely known outside of certain circles where slang terms are commonly used.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “beat the bishop”

The phrase “beat the bishop” is a well-known idiom that has been used for many years. It is often used in a humorous or playful way, but its origins are not entirely clear. Some believe it may have originated from religious practices, while others think it may have come from more secular sources.

One theory suggests that the phrase may have originated from medieval times when bishops were known to carry staffs as symbols of their authority. It was believed that if someone wanted to challenge a bishop’s authority, they would need to “beat” his staff with their own. Over time, this practice may have evolved into the modern-day expression.

Another theory suggests that the phrase may have more sexual connotations. In some cultures, masturbation is sometimes referred to as “beating off,” and it’s possible that this term could be related to the idiom.

Regardless of its origins, there’s no denying that “beat the bishop” has become a popular expression in English-speaking countries around the world. Whether used in jest or in more serious contexts, it remains an interesting linguistic curiosity with a rich history behind it.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “beat the bishop”

One common usage of “beat the bishop” is as a euphemism for masturbation. However, this is not the only way in which this phrase can be used. In some contexts, it may refer to wasting time or procrastinating instead of doing something productive. Alternatively, it could also mean avoiding responsibility or shirking one’s duties.

Over time, variations of this idiom have emerged that incorporate different words or phrases while still conveying a similar message. For example, “choke the chicken” or “flog the dolphin” are both euphemisms for masturbation that serve as alternatives to “beat the bishop”. Similarly, phrases like “spin your wheels” or “twiddle your thumbs” convey a sense of wasting time without explicitly referencing masturbation.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “beat the bishop”


  • Polish the bishop
  • Choke the chicken
  • Flog the dolphin
  • Milk the snake
  • Pull your pud

These phrases are all euphemisms for masturbation. While they may not be as commonly used as “beat the bishop”, they serve as alternatives that convey a similar meaning.


  • Show restraint/abstinence from sexual activity
  • Engage in consensual sexual activity with a partner(s)

While “beat the bishop” implies engaging in solo sexual activity, these antonyms suggest either abstaining from sexual activity altogether or engaging in it with a partner(s).

Cultural Insights:

The origins of “beat the bishop” are unclear but it is believed to have originated in British English slang. The phrase has since spread to other English-speaking countries and is often used humorously or ironically. However, it can also be considered vulgar or offensive by some individuals.

In some cultures and religions, masturbation is considered taboo or sinful. Therefore, using an idiom like “beat the bishop” could be seen as disrespectful or inappropriate. It’s important to consider cultural sensitivities when using idioms related to sensitive topics like sexuality.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “beat the bishop”

Exercise 1: Fill in the Blank

In this exercise, we will provide a sentence with a blank space where the idiom “beat the bishop” can be used. Your task is to fill in that blank space with an appropriate form of this idiom. For example:

– John always finds excuses to __________ when he’s supposed to do his work.

Answer: beat the bishop

Now it’s your turn! Fill in the blanks with suitable forms of “beat the bishop”:

– Mary was caught __________ during her exam.

– I usually __________ before going to bed.

– The boss noticed that Tom was __________ instead of working on his project.

Exercise 2: Matchmaking

In this exercise, we will provide a list of situations or actions and a list of idioms. Your task is to match each situation or action with an appropriate idiom from our list. Here are some examples:


1) Procrastinating

2) Wasting time

3) Avoiding responsibilities


A) Beat around the bush

B) Beat the bishop

C) Kill time


1-C; 2-B; 3-A

Now it’s your turn! Match each situation/action with an appropriate idiom from our list:


1) Daydreaming

2) Making excuses

3) Pretending not to hear someone calling you


A) Beat around the bush

B) Beat the bishop

C) Turn a deaf ear

Exercise 3: Contextualizing

In this exercise, we will provide a sentence or a short passage where the idiom “beat the bishop” is used. Your task is to identify the context in which this idiom is used and explain its meaning. For example:

– After working for hours on his project, John decided to beat the bishop for a while.

Context: John has been working hard on his project and needs to take a break.

Meaning: To engage in an activity that helps one relax or relieve stress.

Now it’s your turn! Read each sentence carefully and identify the context in which “beat the bishop” is used and explain its meaning:

– Despite having many pending tasks, Tom spent most of his day beating around the bush.

– Mary was caught beating the bishop during her work hours.

– Instead of studying for her exams, Jane decided to kill time by beating the bishop.

We hope these exercises help you improve your understanding of “beat the bishop”. Keep practicing!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “beat the bishop”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their meaning and context. However, even if you know what an idiom means, there are still common mistakes that can be made when using them in conversation or writing.

One mistake is taking an idiom too literally. The phrase “beat the bishop” does not actually involve physically assaulting a religious figure. It is a slang term for male masturbation. Using this idiom in a serious or formal setting could lead to confusion or offense.

Another mistake is assuming that everyone will understand the idiom. While some idioms may be widely known and used, others may only be familiar to certain groups of people or regions. Using an obscure idiom without explanation could leave your audience confused or alienated.

A third mistake is overusing an idiom. While idioms can add color and personality to language, using them too frequently can make your speech or writing seem repetitive or unoriginal.

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