Understanding the Idiom: "return to one's muttons" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Humorous calque translation of French revenons à nos moutons, from "La Farce de maître Pierre Pathelin"

The idiom “return to one’s muttons” is a common expression used in English language that refers to someone who has returned to a previous topic or subject. The phrase can be traced back to an old French play, where it was originally used as a pun on the word “mouton,” which means both “sheep” and “mutton.” Over time, the phrase evolved into its current form and became widely popular.

The Origins of the Idiom

As mentioned earlier, the phrase “return to one’s muttons” has its roots in an old French play called La Farce de Maître Pathelin. In this play, there is a scene where a character named Pathelin tries to trick a shepherd into believing that he had stolen his sheep. However, when Pathelin asks for his money back after being caught out by the shepherd, he says:

“I am not talking about your sheep; I am talking about my mutton.”

This line was meant as a pun because both words sound similar in French. Over time, people started using this phrase as an idiomatic expression that means returning to something previously discussed.

Usage and Examples

The idiom “return to one’s muttons” is commonly used when someone wants another person to focus on what they were previously discussing instead of getting sidetracked by other topics. For example:

– During a meeting with colleagues discussing project management strategies:

“We need to return to our muttons here – let’s get back on track with our original agenda.”

– During a conversation with a friend who keeps changing the subject:

“Can we please return to our muttons and talk about what we were originally discussing?”

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “return to one’s muttons”

The idiom “return to one’s muttons” is an old expression that has been in use for centuries. It is believed to have originated in France, where it was used as a way of telling someone to go back to their original topic of discussion. The phrase was first recorded in English literature in the 17th century.

The origin of the idiom is not entirely clear, but there are several theories about its meaning. One theory suggests that it comes from the practice of sheep farming, where farmers would separate their flocks by marking each animal with a different color dye. When they needed to return a sheep to its rightful owner, they would say “let us return to our muttons.”

Another theory suggests that the phrase may have come from medieval French plays, where actors would often wear costumes made from sheepskin. When an actor left the stage and returned wearing a different costume, audiences would become confused and demand that he “return to his muttons” or return to his original character.

Regardless of its origins, the idiom has remained popular over time and is still widely used today. Its meaning has evolved slightly over time and now refers more generally to returning to a previous topic or situation after being distracted or diverted.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “return to one’s muttons”

When it comes to idioms, there are often variations in usage and meaning depending on the context. The phrase “return to one’s muttons” is no exception. While its basic meaning refers to returning to a previous topic or task, there are several ways in which this idiom can be used.


One common way that “return to one’s muttons” is used is when someone has gone off on a tangent during a conversation or discussion. In this case, another person might say something like, “Let’s return to our muttons,” as a way of redirecting the conversation back to the original topic.

Another way that this idiom can be used is when someone has become distracted from their work or task at hand. For example, if an employee was working on a project but started browsing social media instead, their boss might tell them to “get back to your muttons” as a reminder to focus on their work.


While the basic meaning of “returning to one’s muttons” remains consistent across different contexts, there are variations in how this idiom can be phrased. Some people might use similar phrases such as “getting back on track” or “staying focused.” Others may use more colorful language such as “stop chasing rabbits” or “quit dilly-dallying.”

Additionally, some languages have their own versions of this idiom with slightly different meanings. For example, in French-speaking countries, the equivalent phrase is “revenir à ses moutons,” which translates directly as “to return to one’s sheep.” This version of the idiom carries connotations of being cautious and attentive rather than simply refocusing attention.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “return to one’s muttons”


– Get back on track

– Return to the point

– Come back to the subject

– Refocus on the matter at hand

These phrases share a similar meaning with “return to one’s muttons,” which is essentially about returning or refocusing on a specific topic or issue that has been sidetracked.


– Lose track of

– Drift off topic

– Go off on a tangent

On the other hand, these phrases represent opposite actions of what “returning to one’s muttons” means. They are about losing focus or going astray from a particular subject.

Cultural Insights:

The origin of this idiom dates back to medieval France when sheep farming was widespread. It was common for shepherds in markets selling sheep meat (mutton) would leave their flock unattended while they went off doing something else. Dishonest vendors would then swap out some of the original sheep with inferior ones in hopes that nobody would notice. The phrase “to return to your muttons” meant checking your own flock so you wouldn’t be tricked by dishonest sellers.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “return to one’s muttons”

In order to fully grasp the meaning and usage of the idiom “return to one’s muttons”, it is important to practice using it in various contexts. These exercises will help you understand how and when to use this expression correctly.

Exercise 1:

Create a conversation between two friends where one friend keeps changing the subject, but the other friend keeps bringing them back to the original topic. Use the idiom “return to one’s muttons” at least once during this conversation.

Exercise 2:

Write a short story where a detective is investigating a crime and keeps getting sidetracked by irrelevant details. Have another character remind them to “return to their muttons” and focus on solving the case.

Exercise 3:

List five different scenarios where someone might use the idiom “return to one’s muttons”. For each scenario, explain why this expression would be appropriate.

Note: Practice makes perfect! Keep practicing these exercises until you feel comfortable using this idiom in everyday conversations or writing.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “return to one’s muttons”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meaning and context. The idiom “return to one’s muttons” means to return to a previous topic or task after being distracted or sidetracked. However, there are common mistakes that people make when using this idiom.

Mistake #1: Misusing the Idiom

One of the most common mistakes is misusing the idiom by using it in situations where it does not apply. For example, saying “let’s return to our muttons” in a meeting about a completely different topic would be inappropriate and confusing for others.

Mistake #2: Not Understanding its Origin

The origin of this idiom dates back to medieval times when sheep were often stolen. To prevent theft, farmers would mark their sheep with a distinctive cut on their ear known as a “mutton”. If someone returned lost sheep, they would have to identify which ones belonged to them by recognizing their unique marks or “muttons”. Therefore, the phrase “returning to one’s muttons” meant returning to what was familiar and known.

  • To avoid making this mistake, it is important to understand the origin of an idiom before using it.

Mistake #3: Overusing the Idiom

Another mistake is overusing the idiom in conversation or writing. While idioms can add color and interest, too much use can become tiresome and detract from your message.

  • To avoid overuse of an idiom like “returning to one’s muttons”, try to vary your language and use other expressions that convey a similar meaning.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can use the idiom “returning to one’s muttons” effectively and appropriately in your communication.

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