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The title is the literal translation of a south Indian proverb, used to describe situations where a person who's already guilty will be proven so, if he voices himself against something.


  1. From the literal saying : A thief entered a house at night, and a scorpion stung him. He cant shout out loud, otherwise he'll be caught. He just has to bear it.

  2. A student skipped school on the day of a field trip to a local hospital, unbeknownst to his parents. The parents later found out that there was a break out of some disease at the said hospital and decide to get him a preventive vaccination for it. He doesn't like injections, but cant tell his parents that he didn't actually visit the hospital.

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there's an element of "poetic justice" in all of that. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/poetic-justice – P. Obertelli Feb 9 at 12:40
"Between the devil and the black sea" – V.V. Feb 9 at 12:40
Great proverb. But it's often difficult to find exact correlates across cultures (except Aesop's fables; he's everywhere!) – Mitch Feb 9 at 15:54
Hey deepa, consider the english phrase "he had to bite his tongue". Meaning he was in a situation where he had to keep quiet. it's similar but not exact. Aacha. – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:07
Ah - I finally thought of how you'd likely say at least item (2) in English .. trapped in a lie. – Joe Blow Feb 10 at 12:08

17 Answers 17

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I think you are referring to "திருடனுக்கு தேள் கொட்டின மாதிரி"(this is the original Tamil saying that I am aware of. It could exist in other Indian languages too)

You can say that the thief found himself between a rock and a hard place. He could either shout which will eventually lead him to his capture or bear the pain which could probably kill him. The idiom has the same implications as "between the devil and the deep blue sea"

(prov.) if you are between a rock and a hard place, you have to make a difficult decision between two things that are equally unpleasant

[The Free Dictionary]

As far as the second scenario is concerned, the student has 2 difficult choices to make :-

  • He can either disclose that he skipped school/field trip and avoid vaccination. However, this could potentially infuriate his parents for lying to them.
  • He can go ahead with the vaccination and conceal that he skipped school/field trip. But vaccination gives him all the jitters, so he's really has no other way out.


The English idiom tends to be associated mostly with misdeeds, i.e. people putting themselves in such precarious situations. However, the original South Indian(Tamil) saying can also apply to situations where you try to do good but inadvertently end up like "a thief stung by a scorpion", where the choices in front of you are limited and only detrimental.

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I think this is the closest other than just noting that the protagonist "has to bite their tongue" or similar... – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:17
While the person in each of the examples is between a rock and a hard place, the key point that the situation was set up by their own misdeeds is entirely lacking from this phrase. If nothing else, this answer should point out and acknowledge this weakness. – KRyan Feb 9 at 19:33
@KRyan - That's a good point you are making. However, the original idiom, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't apply only to misdeeds. It can also apply for contexts where people try to do good but inadvertently end up finding themselves in a very difficult position. Let's suppose you lend a huge sum of money to your friend trying to help him/her out but s/he uses it for unlawful activities behind your back and gets caught. You can either confess that you lent the money and risk being arrested or you conceal the fact and lose a big sum. For no fault of yours, you are in a precarious position. – BiscuitBoy Feb 10 at 1:34
I'm sorry I cant read Tamil, but yes, Tamil is the language I know the proverb from. I like "between the devil and the deep blue sea", definitely widely used. Although like @KRyan says, this expression does not point out that the protagonist's misdeeds lead to the situation. But it's always difficult to get the exact equivalent across cultures, and this is definitely usable in place of the original. – insanity Feb 10 at 5:49
@KRyan is correct. The fact is for the two specific examples in the OP, you wouldn't in English actually use "between a rock and a hard place" – Joe Blow Feb 10 at 11:52

Your examples seem to be leaning towards unfortunate things happening to people who put themselves in that situation in the first place, in which case one could be said to be

hoisted by (some people say "with" or "on" instead) his own petard

which basically translates to

to be hurt or destroyed by one's own plot or device

A petard is, or rather was, as they have long since fallen out of use, a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls. They were originally metallic and bell-shaped but later cubical wooden boxes. Whatever the shape, the significant feature was that they were full of gunpowder - basically what we would now call a bomb. (Phrases.org.uk)

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Also indeed. I have edited to include this, @Lawrence. – John Clifford Feb 9 at 15:52
it's not really right, John! in the two examples, this is what would happen if the villain in question was exposed. Quite simply, as of writing in (1) and (2), neither of them have been hoisted petardwise. – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:16
They've already been hoisted, they just need to choose whether an additional petard explodes. – John Clifford Feb 9 at 18:47

The expression "it serves someone right" comes to mind:

  • [for an act or event] to punish someone fairly (for doing something). John copied off my test paper. It would serve him right if he fails the test.
  • to be just what someone deserves.


  • It served the boy right to get the unwanted injection.

  • It served the thief right to get stung by a scorpion.

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I was going to post "Karma's a bitch", but I guess this is basically the same meaning. ;) – Tim Ward Feb 9 at 12:46
Yes, and it's not vulgar. – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:08
A good point, but again this is what would happen "if" the villain is exposed. – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:17
@JoeBlow not necessarily... This expression is often turned around when thinking to oneself, "Serves me right!" But I don't know how many thieves would think they deserved any pain for stealing... – Tim Ward Feb 10 at 4:57

One approximate analogue to this idiom might be "having a tiger by the tail", which is defined by oxforddictionaries.com as "hav[ing] embarked on a course of action that proves unexpectedly difficult but that cannot easily or safely be abandoned."

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Also, there's the expression "to take the bull by the horns", which is defined by that same site as "[to] deal bravely and decisively with a difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant situation." But you'll note that this has more of a positive connotation. – Doug Warren Feb 9 at 15:57

You could say, the student got himself out on a limb (or up a tree or painted himself into a corner.)

out on a limb: In a difficult, awkward, or vulnerable position. This expression alludes to an animal climbing out on the limb of a tree and then being afraid or unable to retreat. [Late 1800s]

up a tree: This expression alludes to an animal, such as a raccoon or squirrel, that climbs a tree for refuge from attackers, which then surround the tree so it cannot come down. [Colloquial; early 1800s]

paint oneself into a corner: Get oneself into a difficulty from which one can't extricate oneself. This idiom uses the graphic image of painting all of the floor except for the corner one stands in, so that one cannot leave without stepping on wet paint.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

Alternately, how about Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Prov. No matter what you do, it will cause trouble. If I use this money to pay the rent, I won't have enough left over for food. But if I don't use the money to pay the rent, my landlord will evict me. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. Helen: If I invite Shirley to the party, I'm sure she'll get drunk and make an unpleasant scene. But if I don't invite her, she'll never forgive me. Jane: Damned if you do, damned if you don't, huh? McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

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Good thinking ! this is just what the expression means ... – Joe Blow Feb 10 at 11:50

It's similar to "You've made your bed, now lie in it." which is a saying indicating that you got yourself into a bad situation and must now deal with the consequences.

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Catch-22 comes to mind, which describes a no-win situation.

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"Grin and bear it" means to put up with something unpleasant because you don't really have much choice.

It's actually much broader than you the saying you describe, but it would fit that type of situation.

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That's actually a great suggestion. – Joe Blow Feb 10 at 12:08

Although in your contexts the thief and hooky-playing student both chose to keep their complaints and protests silent, the notion is similar to the “clean hands doctrine” used by an opposing party in court proceedings to prevent another party from complaining about a situation if the complaining party’s own actions in the matter are questionable.

As the linked ‘Wikipedia’ article mentions, this doctrine is also known as the “dirty hands doctrine” and its meaning has been paraphrased in the expression "A dirty dog will not have justice by the court."

To use it in your context you’d need to shift the decision to remain silent to the thief/student, perhaps as follows:

The thief’s/student’s own dirty hands prevented him/her from complaining


The thief/student thought it best to remain silent, knowing that there’s no justice/sympathy for dirty dogs (or for the devil)

(“no sympathy for the devil” attributed to Hunter S.Thompson via ‘GoodReads’)

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"Just deserts" (or "desserts," as it is often written) also comes to mind. The boy and the thief both put themselves in positions of difficulty by essentially making bad choices, and then have to live with the consequences. Although, this is another one that might be more applicable if either were to be exposed to judgment and/or punishment.

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Your answer is apt. It would be much better if you had a citation. – ab2 Feb 9 at 20:21

English has a nearly exact equivalent: "Like the Spartan boy and the fox."


It's a classical allusion, rather than a "saying" per se -- but the original saying references a longer story involving a thief breaking into a house and being stung by a scorpion, so I think that's a reasonable equivalent.

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Very interesting, but I wonder whether the average English speaker will understand this phrase nowadays. I never heard this story before. – CopperKettle Feb 11 at 9:27

how about "hand caught in a cookie jar" ? closest English expression.

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That's more for when you're caught doing something you shouldn't, rather than when you do something bad and it backfires on you. – John Clifford Feb 9 at 15:52
And it would seem the tamil expression more means "your actions are restrained by the fact that you're up to something..." – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 18:10

Scorpion bitten (hiding) thief suffers in silent pain, forced into silence for fear of being revealed. (In south Indian Telugu, " Dongaki thelu kuttinatlu"

May be " Silence of the guilty."

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I think it means he'd "cornered himself". There's also a strong sense that he'd been "trapped by his own devices" or "caught in his own net".


A manager claims the credit for the work you did finding a contractor to quickly start work on a project. The contractor turns out to be incompetent and ruins the project. The manager would like to turn you in but he had/was ...

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If you were dishonest, and are condemned to continue being dishonest to keep up the pretense, then you are living a lie:

live a lie
to live in a way that is ​dishonest because you are ​pretending to be something that you are not, to yourself or to other ​people

(The expression is not restricted to British English, as the dictionary suggests.)

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So the meaning of the idiom is you've done something bad and now being punished with something?

Chickens have come home to roost

Originated in The Canterbury Tales (The Parson’s Tale part)

Additional Info

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This translation is harder than it looks! To bite your tongue has an additional usage. My parents used to say they had to "bite their tongue" when a friend of theirs made a claim in public that they knew was wrong. To contradict them in front of a lot of people would be too embarrassing or humiliating for the friend, so my parents would say nothing and try to change the subject.

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