Understanding the Idiom: "turn tail" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: (This etymology is missing or incomplete. Please add to it, or discuss it at the Etymology scriptorium.)

The Origins of the Idiom

The exact origins of the idiom are unclear, but it is believed to have originated in medieval times when knights would turn their horses around to flee from battle. Over time, it became a common expression used to describe any sudden retreat.

Usage Examples

“Turn tail” can be used in a variety of situations. For example:

  • When describing someone who backs out of an argument: “He started yelling at me, but as soon as I stood up for myself he turned tail.”
  • When describing someone who runs away from danger: “The thief saw the police coming and turned tail.”
  • When describing an animal that retreats: “The fox heard us approaching and turned tail.”

This idiom is often used colloquially in everyday conversation and writing. Understanding its meaning can help you better comprehend English language expressions.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “turn tail”

The idiom “turn tail” is a common expression used in English to describe someone who suddenly runs away or retreats from a difficult situation. The origins of this phrase can be traced back to medieval times, when knights would ride into battle on horseback with their tails held high as a sign of courage and bravery.

However, if a knight became frightened or overwhelmed by the enemy, he might turn his horse around and flee from the battlefield with his tail between his legs. This act was seen as cowardly and shameful, which is why the phrase “turn tail” has come to be associated with running away from danger.

Over time, this idiom has been used in various contexts beyond warfare. It can refer to any situation where someone backs down or retreats from a challenge instead of facing it head-on. Whether it’s in sports, business, or personal relationships, turning tail is often seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Despite its negative connotations, there are times when turning tail can be the smartest choice. Sometimes it’s better to live to fight another day than risk everything on one battle that you’re not prepared for. However, knowing when to stand your ground and when to retreat is an important skill that takes experience and wisdom to master.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “turn tail”

When it comes to idioms, there are often variations in their usage that can add nuance and depth to their meaning. The idiom “turn tail” is no exception. While its basic definition refers to someone fleeing or running away from a situation, there are several ways in which this phrase can be used.

One common variation of “turn tail” is the addition of the word “and run.” This emphasizes the urgency and speed with which someone is leaving a situation. For example, if someone sees a bear while hiking in the woods, they might “turn tail and run” back down the trail as quickly as possible.

Another way in which this idiom can be used is to describe someone who changes their mind or position abruptly. In this context, “turning tail” means reversing course or abandoning a previously held belief or stance. For instance, if a politician suddenly decides to support an unpopular policy after previously opposing it, they could be accused of “turning tail.”

Finally, there are instances where this idiom can be used more metaphorically than literally. For example, if someone gives up on pursuing a difficult goal because they feel overwhelmed or discouraged, they may be said to have “turned tail” even though they haven’t physically fled from anything.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “turn tail”


– Flee

– Run away

– Retreat

– Escape

– Bolt


– Stand your ground

– Face your fears

– Confront the situation

In some cultures, turning one’s back or retreating from a confrontation can be seen as cowardly behavior. However, in other societies, it may be viewed as a strategic move to avoid unnecessary conflict. It is important to consider cultural nuances when interpreting idioms like “turn tail”.

In literature and media, characters who turn tail are often portrayed negatively as weak or lacking courage. This reinforces the idea that running away from problems is not an admirable trait. On the other hand, there are instances where turning tail can save lives and prevent harm.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “turn tail”

In order to fully grasp the meaning of the idiom “turn tail”, it is important to practice using it in different contexts. The following exercises will help you become more familiar with this expression and its various nuances.

Exercise 1: Write a short story or anecdote that includes the phrase “turn tail”. Try to use it in a way that conveys a sense of fear, cowardice, or retreat.

Exercise 2: Use the idiom “turn tail” in a conversation with someone. See if they can understand what you mean based on your usage of the phrase alone.

Exercise 3: Watch a movie or TV show and look for instances where characters “turn tail”. Take note of how this expression is used and try to identify any underlying themes or emotions associated with it.

Exercise 4: Create flashcards with different scenarios written on them (e.g. being confronted by a bully, encountering danger while hiking). Practice using the idiom “turn tail” appropriately in each scenario.

By practicing these exercises, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to use the idiom “turn tail” effectively and confidently. Remember that idioms are an important part of language learning and can add depth and nuance to your communication skills!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “turn tail”

When using idioms in everyday conversation, it’s important to use them correctly in order to avoid misunderstandings. The idiom “turn tail” is no exception. This phrase is often used to describe someone who runs away from a difficult or dangerous situation. However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this idiom.

Mistake #1: Confusing the Meaning

One of the most common mistakes people make when using the idiom “turn tail” is confusing its meaning with other similar phrases such as “chicken out” or “back down”. While these phrases may have similar connotations, they do not mean exactly the same thing as “turn tail”. It’s important to understand the specific meaning of each phrase before using it in conversation.

Mistake #2: Using it Inappropriately

Another mistake people make when using the idiom “turn tail” is using it in inappropriate situations. For example, if someone uses this phrase to describe a person who simply changed their mind about something and decided not to pursue it further, they would be misusing the idiom. It’s important to use idioms only when they are appropriate and accurately reflect what you want to say.

  • Avoid confusing meanings with other similar phrases
  • Use idioms appropriately and accurately
Leave a Reply

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: