In the First World War soldiers in the trenches on both sides would sometimes give themselves a non-fatal wound ( intentionally shooting themselves in the foot, whilst making it appear as an accident, being a favourite). The purpose was to get themselves medically repatriated and out of the way of possible more serious harm, or death in action.

Often I hear people use the term 'he has shot himself in the foot' to refer to someone who has unintentionally harmed his own interests whilst in the process of trying to damage someone else.

What is the understood meaning of the metaphor 'to shoot oneself in the foot'?

  • 3
    I should think this meaning carries from here to Manchester. Quinion acknowledges that there may well have been a semantic shift. Or two. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 11 '13 at 20:55
  • To put your foot in it is very similar in meaning, isn't it? – Mari-Lou A Nov 11 '13 at 21:18
  • @Edwin Ashworth Interesting material. Yes it smells of semantic shift to me too. – WS2 Nov 11 '13 at 21:44
  • 2
    @Mari-Lou Well they both contain the word 'foot', I suppose. However the original meaning of 'shooting in the foot' appears per Edwin Ashworth to have changed significantly over the years. In a similar vein I was researching a late-eighteenth-century writer who had included some commentary on Machiavelli. What I discovered was that interpretations of Machiavelli had changed dramatically over the centuries. The 17th century Machiavelli is a quite different animal to the 18th and the 19th-century philosopher, and different again to the way we understand him today. – WS2 Nov 11 '13 at 22:38
  • 1
    Note for future readers: this is not to be confused with "[he/she] shot to [his/her] feet" which is a different idiom (and the one I was researching while I ended up here). – Andrea Lazzarotto Jun 22 '18 at 0:02

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms says

shoot yourself in the foot inadvertently make a situation worse for yourself; demonstrate gross incompetence

The Free Dictionary online has

Fig. to cause oneself difficulty; to be the author of one's own misfortune. I am a master at shooting myself in the foot. Again, he shot himself in the foot by saying too much to the press.

The Chambers Dictionary has this pithy definition

(inf) to harm one's own interests by ineptitude

The original meaning of either accidentally shooting yourself in the foot with a gun or deliberately avoiding military combat by self inflicting a severe wound seems to have been lost or fogotten.

Perhaps the idiom, to shoot oneself in the foot, has overtaken a much older saying which has slowly grown out of favour and is becoming obsolete.

Hoist with own petard Fig. to be harmed or disadvantaged by an action of one's own which was meant to harm someone else. Based on the literal meaning of hoist by your own petard; blown into the air by your own explosive device. (From a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet.)

There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar'; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet

The Free Dictionary gives the following examples of usage. It seems to me, at least, that the meaning is very similar to "shoot oneself in the foot".

She intended to murder her brother but was hoist with her own petard when she ate the poisoned food intended for him.

The vandals were hoist with their own petard when they tried to make an emergency call from the pay phone they had broken.

  • What you identified here was the way the idiom is frequently and incorrectly used. 'Shooting oneself in the foot' was a deliberate act in order to get oneself medically repatriated. – WS2 Jan 22 '14 at 0:00
  • @WS2 What makes you believe your meaning is the original? Do you have anydata showing this idiom ever been used in your meaning? Do you know when it first appeared? You can easily shoot yourself unintentionally when manipulating a gun wrong. – Vladimir F Dec 11 '15 at 9:44
  • @VladimirF I'm not saying it was used as an idiom. But there are certainly recorded instances of soldiers having deliberately shot themselves in the foot. The fact that it could easily happen accidentally doubtless was a reason why they would chose that method of injuring themselves. The metaphor as it is used today has a different meaning. But you may be right - the idiom (with different meaning) may pre-date the practice. But somehow I doubt it. – WS2 Dec 11 '15 at 10:02
  • 1
    @VladimirF After consideration I believe Edwin Ashworth has supplied the best explanation with his Quinion link above. No, I fully admit that I have no way of knowing which meaning is the original - which lies behind my asking the question. – WS2 Mar 29 '17 at 8:36

"Shoot yourself in the foot" comes from the old west, when a cowboy wore his pistol in a belt holster. If he tried to draw too quickly the gun may accidentally go off before he gets it out of the holster, resulting in a foot being shot.

  • +1 for a good suggestion. But to be complete the answer really requires some referencing. I believe the "Quinion" link supplied by Edwin Ashworth provides the most comprehensive explanation here, and I am encouraging him to supply it as an answer. – WS2 Mar 29 '17 at 8:39

To shoot yourself in the foot is to mess yourself up. To cause difficulty to yourself on pure accident.

  • 2
    It is a significantly more complex matter than that, Jonathan. May I suggest you follow Edwin Ashworth's hyperlinks above. They are quite instructive. – WS2 Nov 11 '13 at 22:41
  • That first link is where I got that definition, except I searched for that link. The second link is very informative. I see now. – Jonathan Spirit Nov 11 '13 at 22:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.