Am I trying to take someone's Frosted Flakes? Is this sage advice or an old wives' tale?

  • 3
    I thought the accepted method of catching tigers was by their toes.
    – mmyers
    Mar 18, 2011 at 15:08
  • That way you can't sling them to the end of the universe
    – n0nChun
    Mar 18, 2011 at 15:10
  • 2
    @mmyers: This gets into the interesting substitution of this phrase into the Eeny-Meeny rhyme in an attempt to sanitize earlier racist versions, but that should be its own question. . . Mar 18, 2011 at 16:28
  • 2
    For the record, I don't think your "joke" is helpful in the slightest. I would rather see an actual question. (Also, neither your title nor body are actually asking anything at all.)
    – MrHen
    Mar 18, 2011 at 19:04

7 Answers 7


There's this from William Safire in The New York Times, writing about the phrase's origin:

'Ch'i 'hu nan hsia pei' goes the Chinese proverb, translated in 1875 as 'He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.' The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs interprets the old Asian metaphor as 'Once a dangerous or troublesome venture is begun, the safest course is to carry it through to the end.'

The earliest use of the phrase in print that I can find is from 1829 in a Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Court of Ava, in the Year 1827:


This lends credence to the Chinese-origin theory.

  • 2
    The Burmese are not Chinese, any more than the Spanish are German. Jul 13, 2011 at 5:40
  • @Malvolio: Then they must be Japanese. No, seriously, I originally saw some Chinese connection in the text but can't pinpoint it now. May 31, 2012 at 12:23
  • Thomas Jefferson, about slavery, famously said “we have the wolf by the ear” — meaning a bad situation that could nonetheless destroy them if they end it. Some evidence that maybe it has multiple origins, or that perhaps it did not start in Asia. Nov 7, 2021 at 14:54

It's a metaphor for a situation where trying to extricate yourself might be fatal. You have no option but to hang on and continue in circles - let go and the tiger will catch you.


There's a discussion regarding this one here.

There's a similar proverb: "He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount - Once a dangerous or troublesome venture is begun, the safest course is to carry it through to the end. 1875 W. Scarborough 'Collection of Chinese Proverbs.'"

My inclination however is to disagree that "tiger by the tail" has the same meaning. In the proverb, getting off the tiger is dangerous (or fatal), and it's usually used when relinquishing control of something is difficult.

In the phrase in question, however, the tiger is certainly capable of causing harm and holding its tail is likely to enrage it. Thus, in practice, the phrase means, "trying to control X - or be in possession of X - is extremely dangerous."

Thus, at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, the rescue crews are in danger because of the radiation, but the crisis will worsen if they flee; they have to stay in spite of the danger ("he who rides the tiger..."). However, the act of trying to control the reactors is deadly, and they have a tiger by the tail.

  • 2
    I agree that there's more to it than riding the tiger. You would say, "We'll just have to take the tiger by its tail.", indicating that you have not yet done so but feel the risk is necessary. The Chinese "riding the tiger" feels to me -- not being Chinese -- as if its describing a situation that may or may not have appeared dangerous when you started but that has become dangerous and impossible to exit from.
    – Wayne
    May 17, 2011 at 14:12

I feel "having a tiger by the tail" is best described as someone in a situation with a powerful beast foolishly taking a tiger by the tail thinking this is how you can catch it and control it. Basically underestimate your foe you will pay and pay dearly. For example. If someone hurt's a man's daughter. A normal sane man can turn into a rabid beast a gnaw your face off if need be. That's catching a tiger by its tail. The response to the act of hanging onto the tail will be with fangs and claws. Not restraint and control as you tried with him.


I remember reading this tale as a child:

Once a man was walking in the jungle and saw something move behind a tree and grabbed it. 'It' turned out to be the tail of a tiger that was resting on the other side of the tree. Startled the tiger, tried to run around the tree and encountered the man holding the end of its tail. As it tried to catch him, its tail yanked the man away from it. The man soon realized that he had made a terrible mistake but had no real choice. He held on to the tiger's tail as it chased him around the tree. — The End.


You get on to the tiger to ride it, but you are thrown off. You now hold on to its tail as it runs all over the jungle. The moment you let go of its tail, the tiger will turn around and kill you. You can neither ride the tiger nor leave the tiger. That is the predicament.


I have always believed the meaning to be that givin in the 1827 Journal quoted above - one who "has a tiger by the tail" is equally imperiled by holding it and releasing it. If held, the tiger can turn around and kill the person. If let loose, it can still kill the person. Catching a tiger by the tail is a naive and dangerous way to deal with the beast, and one who has one by the tail made an error in dealing with a troublesome situation.