What do they mean when they say "He can't find his way out of paper bag", or "He couldn't manage himself out of paper bag"?

Also, what is the history of this phrase? What is its origin?

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    I usually hear it as "He couldn't [some verb] out of a wet paper bag". The wet part seems important, and seems to refer to brown paper bags which tear at the lightest touch, when wet. Informal. Possibly some people have started dropping out the word "wet" when they use the phrase.
    – Warren P
    Jun 13, 2011 at 17:48
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    Actually it seems I am mistaken. "Fight his way out of a paper bag" appears to be far more common, and far older, so 'wet paper bag' seems a later embellishment.
    – Warren P
    Jun 13, 2011 at 17:55
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    @Warren: "Find his way out of a paper bag" and "Fight his way out of a wet paper bag" have rather different meanings. The first is talking about stupidity, the second about weakness.
    – user1579
    Jun 13, 2011 at 18:14

3 Answers 3


We've all watched a kitten emerge from a paper bag, yes? I believe the ease with which such a small animal can accomplish the task highlights the weakness of a person who can't.


He couldn't punch his way out of a paper sack.

Regardless of the particular version in question, it normally applies to weakness and inability to do something fairly routine. Note the difference between this and the variations on:

He couldn't find his buttocks with both hands, a roadmap, and a flashlight.

The phrases in this pattern relate to general stupidity.

  • 1
    BIG LOL for the variant :D Jun 13, 2011 at 19:36
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    There's a programmer's insult that I like a lot: "He couldn't program a $20 out of an ATM." And (after a number of security flaws, backdoors, and outright frauds came to light a few years ago) "He couldn't program a Republican victory out of a Diebold."
    – MT_Head
    Jun 13, 2011 at 21:36
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    In fairness, it's doubtful that anybody has published a roadmap with his buttocks clearly labelled on it...
    – bacar
    Jan 9, 2014 at 12:45

My father used to say that someone "couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag" as a way to indicate physical smallness and weakness. I only started hearing generalizations of this (act his way, find his way, lie his way etc) in the last 10 or 15 years. The fight version is pretty obvious in meaning and hardly even a metaphor were it not for the fact a person can't fit in a paper bag. The rest are constructions from that one.

  • +1 on this. I'm pretty sure it started with "Fight his way out of...". It is only fairly recently that the saying became so cliched that you see "out of a paper bag" to be some kind of universal expression of borderline incompetence.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 13, 2011 at 20:08

It's usually of the form "he can't fight [or punch] his way out of a paper bag".

It means you think the person is so inept they can't with all their effort even get out of a weak paper bag, if they were so enclosed. It originally meant you thought they were a weak or incompetent fighter and comes from boxing.

The OED has it from 1955, but it can be found at least as early as May 1916 in Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy ("Athletics: Will We Ever Have a Navy Champion?" by "Heinie", page 50):

About that time Luther McCarty, who had trimmed them all, looked good, but he collapsed in the ring with Arthur Pelkey. We won't say Pelkey finished him, because Pelkey can't hit hard enough to fight his way out of a paper bag.

Here's a 30th July 1921 from Collier's, The National Weekly (v.68 1921 Jul-Dec., page 139, "The Lovers' Handy Man"):

I doubt if Stillwell could punch his way out of a paper bag right now, and this Battlin' Moore is no cake eater, but a tough boy.

And finally in a boxing report in The Garden Island (January 10, 1922, Page 5, Image 5):

Kid Andreas and Bantam Grip on did a brother act in the first. Each refused to strike the other, but seemed content to pose and feint Neither one of them could fight their way out of a paper bag.

  • Why would you need to "fight your way" out of the bag? What's there to fight?
    – einpoklum
    Aug 19, 2016 at 10:24

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