In Europe, the last Plague pandemic took place quite some time ago, so, personally, I have never had to avoid the plague. Yet we still say, "avoiding something like the plague". Is there an alternative expression I could use that is based on something more recent and familiar?

For myself, "avoiding something like Facebook" would work, because I avoid Facebook ... uh ... like the Plague. But since Facebook has "1.79 billion monthly active users" (according to a source used on Wikipedia), that expression might confuse a few people.

What alternatives to "avoiding something like the plague" could people use that are based on something more recent and familiar? Creativity is allowed.


  1. In response to a comment by @WS2 ("Why would you need something current?"): "Avoiding something/someone like the plague" is an example of language that has lost its once powerful meaning because people have no experience with the phenomenon it mentions. And it is overused. See Avoiding clichés on the Oxford Dictionaries blog and Clichés: Avoid Them Like The Plague.
  2. I originally asked, "What alternatives to "avoiding something like the plague" would make more sense today?" However, since my intention is not to replace the expression in the English language as a whole, I have reworded the question.
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    Why would you need something current? Avoiding like the plague gets the message across perfectly. Though we have not happily had a plague epidemic in Britain in recent centuries, everyone knows what the plague was, and no one would want to risk getting it. (Though I did once know an agricultural worker who got bubonic plague, possibly from animal faeces). He felt very ill for some while, but being bacterial rather than viral it is easily knocked on the head with modern antibiotics.)
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:41
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    Great question. Googling for existing phrases keeps coming up with the same reference! "Avoid like death" gives me results of "Avoid like the black death" (which is a synonym of the plague and hence no more contemporary); "steer clear like" returns "steer clear like he has the plague"; "dodge it like" returns "dodge it like the bubonic plague" (another synonym) or "dodge it like it's hot", which doesn't quite make sense to me, and mainly appears as the name of a dodgeball team!
    – AndyT
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:42
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    It's kind of ironic that this idiom came to fruition. The reason that plagues wreaked havoc is because people weren't able to avoid it as we claim to do so today.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 20:17

10 Answers 10


I would consider using "avoid like anthrax". Anthrax became quite popular after the news that it was tested and used in Iraq by the Saddam Hussein regime and letters loaded with the biological weapon anthrax began surfacing in the US.

Concentrated anthrax spores were used for bioterrorism in the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, delivered by mailing postal letters containing the spores. The letters were sent to several news media offices and two Democratic senators: Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. As a result, 22 were infected and five died.

I just Googled its usage by typing in "avoid like anthrax" and it seems to be used.

I don't want to tell you what to do, Zoot, but I think Tommy Lonighan is a gangster and a racist prick who you ought to avoid like anthrax.


"Avoid like ricin" and "avoid like sarin gas" seem to be used, too.

  • Or various diseases in the news could work similarly.. avoid it like the Zika virus or avoid it like Ebola
    – k1eran
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 19:41

If you are going to use an idiom, or simile, go ahead and use "avoid [something] like the plague".

"Avoid [something] like the plague" is an idiom that is commonly understood. There is nothing that I have thought of, or seen suggested here, that carries the same connotations, or would be as widely understood as "avoid * like the plague". Trying to use something else as a replacement for "plague" is effectively attempting to create your own idiom. We all know what "the plague" was and that we want to avoid it.

People don't need the thing which is stated as what we are to avoid to be something that is/was more immediate to them. If this was the case, then the "Spanish Flu", or just "Flu" would have taken hold in the 1920's after 500 million people were affected by it worldwide. Google Ngrams does not find any uses of things similar to "avoid * like Spanish Flu", or "avoid * like flu", whereas "avoid * like the plague" clearly has a reasonable amount of usage.

My expectation is that when people read/hear "avoid * like the plague", a significant number are including an interpretation of the idiom as if it was stated as "avoid it like a plague", where plague means any of (merriam-webster.com):

  1.   a : a disastrous evil or affliction : calamity
      b : a destructively numerous influx

  2.   a : an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality : pestilence

rather than just specifically "the Plague":

  1.   b : a virulent contagious febrile disease that is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and that occurs in bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic forms —called also black death

Thus, the idiom, "avoid * like the plague", already allows people to substitute in, in their own minds, whatever thing they feel should be avoided.

Using something other than "the plague" sounds, to me, made up or forced. If that is what you are trying to convey in what you are writing, then go ahead and use something else. If you are trying to use something which feels natural when people are reading/hearing it, go ahead and use "avoid * like the plague".

The articles say not use the cliché, not just to update it

What the articles which you linked in the Question are trying to say is not that you should use a different cliché-like phase in place of the cliché you are replacing, but that you should reword, or re-think, what you are writing so that you don't end up at a point where using the cliché feels like the correct phrase. Ultimately, the point of those articles is not that the cliché should be updated to something that is more relevant to the audience, but that neither the cliché, nor an updated version of it, should be used.

Hat tip to WS2, who posted as the first comment on the question that "avoid [something] like the plague" does not need to be updated.

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    +1 This is not only a good answer, but IMO, the best answer.
    – ab2
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 23:47
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    It is believed that Shakespeare created 1,700 words for English and those words could not have been created at all or might have come to English far later if Shakespeare had been strongly discouraged from creating or using new words and expressions. I understand your point in the answer, but I don't think your post answers the question. We never know which idiom will be most popular in years to come but I am very sure that a new idiom must be used by someone else even if it sounds made up or forced. Are there any words in any language not made up and forced? Kids don't have a choice.
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 4:07
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    @Rathony, I agree. There are times when making it up it is the right thing to do. If doing so is appropriate depends on context (audience, type of writing,etc.). None has been provided. The OP originally asked "What alternatives to 'avoiding something like the plague' would make more sense today?" The OP wanted something that currently resonates with people more than "the plague". My answer is that using "the plague" does currently resonate with people and has done so over time, even when an alternative, Spanish Flu, which killed 3–5% of the world's population, was directly available.
    – Makyen
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 5:04
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    @Makyen The OP obviously wants to avoid using the idiom most of people are using now and there could be hundreds of possibilities including, of course, Spanish Flu. Why "avoid like Spanish Flu" didn't get any traction is unknown, but one possibility is there was no need to replace the plague at the time as "avoid like the plague" is only around 100 years old. Maybe the question is better suited on Writers SE, but the OP asked here for an appropriate replacement and there are some expressions that can replace it. The real question is whether those suggestions will get any traction. It depends
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 5:11
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    @Rathony, Spanish Flu is one example. In the 20th century, there were, sadly, many possible alternatives, many man-made, each affecting huge numbers of people. None of them changed "the plague" usage. My answer challenges the suppositions upon which the question is based: That "the plague" is not sufficiently recent and familiar to resonate with people and that there is something that will, now, resonate better, with at least as universal application. Alt., that "like a plague" should be replaced because it is a cliché. If so, then reword/re-think what is being said, not use another saying.
    – Makyen
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 5:51

As long as you're insisting on the form "avoid (something) like (something else)", I don't think there is anything as good as the original. Substituting another word might be a clever twist, but it will still be a twist of the phrase they already know.

But if you're OK with changing the phrasing, there are some other good idioms that can convey a similar meaning:

  • My son always seems to make himself scarce when there is yard work to be done.
  • Julie didn't like Don's overwhelming cologne, so she always gave him a wide berth when passing his desk.
  • Randy tried to steer clear of the candy dish, it was just too tempting.
  • Sam loves to talk politics in the office, but I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole.

I avoid X like I avoid taxes. Wikipedia.

Tax avoidance is the legal usage of the tax regime in a single territory to one's own advantage to reduce the amount of tax that is payable by means that are within the law. (emphasis added).

I added emphasis in the definition to distinguish tax avoidance from tax evasion, which is illegal.

Tax evasion, on the other hand, is the general term for efforts by individuals, corporations, trusts and other entities to evade taxes by illegal means

One simple tactic of tax avoidance (or, more precisely tax deferment): Open an IRA. The money put into the IRA is taxed only when you withdraw it, years down the road. Moreover, your income and income tax rate may be lower after you retired than before. Other tactics: Postponing income from what has been a high income year to what you know will be a low-income year with hence a lower income tax rate. Bunching deductions in one year to overcome a floor on allowed deductions. Making a charitable deduction of appreciated stock rather than cash. Taking a vacation in s state with no sales tax and making major purchases there. There are more elaborate schemes, all legal, but requiring much more work to pull off, and more money to make them worthwhile.

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    Good and short. Even law-abiding citizens should understand it.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:54
  • Nitpick: assuming you mean US states (as the name IRA for retirement savings implies) I believe all (certainly those I have lived in) do impose a 'use' tax equivalent to sales tax for things you bring back or have shipped from a no-tax state, or the difference from a lower-rate state. This is required be paid directly, rather than having the seller/merchant remit it, and states generally did not put much effort into enforcement except on costly items like fine art, but have increased in recent years apparently due to the growth of e-commerce versus 'brick-and-mortar'. Otherwise agree. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:00
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    ... Now we only need strategies for evading death :-) Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:01

A somewhat updated version is avoid it like the clap. I say "somewhat" because the clap sounds very 1970s to me; I guess you could say avoid it like an STD but that doesn't have quite the same resonance, and avoid it like gonorrhea is kind of TMI. (Definition of "the clap" from The Free Dictionary's Medical Dictionary here.)

Some examples of usage:

avoid it like the clap. (Yelp list of "places to avoid... well... like the clap".)

The other rule is: Ask yourself, “Would a partially toothless hooker named Whistles enjoy this trend?” If so, avoid it like the clap. (Clinton Kelly, Freakin' Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better Than Everyone Else, 2008)

Avoid it like the clap. Unless you like the clap. Then this place may be for you. (Topix review of a haunted house, by user "It burns")

Avoid it like poison also gets quite a few hits, as seen here and in this ngram. It's a classic, though I don't know how much of a punch it packs. I suspect most of us today only really think about poison when our toddler somehow manages to drink a half-full bottle of perfume when we looked away for, like, twenty seconds or when we're trying to figure out how to get rid of pests.

Personally, for a real 21st century squick-factor I might use

Avoid like bedbugs

This is a problem that is plaguing (sorry) hotels, colleges, and the like, and individuals are taking measures like checking online registries and mattress corners to try to avoid them when they travel. I would link to articles on the subject, but I try to avoid pictures and stories as much as possible.


A slightly more modern expression could be to

not touch it with a 10ft pole

(idiomatic) To avoid something at all costs; to refuse to associate with something; signifies a strong aversion.


It is about as old as Electricity, possibly coming from

This expression may have been derived by the 10-foot poles that electricians and other utility workers use to de-energize transformers and other high voltage utility equipment before performing maintenance.

(from the Wiktionary link)

  • 3
    Would not touch it with a 3 metre pole be even more up-to-date? ;-)
    – Ken Y-N
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 2:42
  • The wording of the Wiktionary etymology is bizarre. A Phrase finder thread quotes "Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985) as saying the "ten foot pole" phrase dates from 1758. Another article cites usage in 1843. Public supply of electricity appears to date from around 1880.
    – traktor
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 5:00
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    Wiktionary also mentions "not touch (something) with a barge pole", which better fits my preference for British English.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 11:18

I feel like the phrase, "Drop it like it's hot" could be adapted here to "Avoid it like it's hot."

I feel like I could hear Snoop Dogg going, "'Void it like it's hot. 'Void it like it's hot."

Meanwhile, if you want something else, urbandictionary suggests avoid like the Velvet Fog but I can honestly say that I have never heard this phrase and neither has Ngrams. And I don't know why velvet fog would be capitalized.

  • Thanks. Unlike the plague, "hot" also has positive connotations, so it would need to be exaggerated, e.g. "lava hot". The Velvet Fog sounded interesting, but it turns out that it was a nickname given to Mel Tormé " in honor of his high tenor and smooth vocal style", which is hardly something negative (or at least a matter of taste).
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:45
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Whaaaaat? What do you mean hot also has positive connotations? Doesn't the plague as well? All kidding aside, I don't think it would need to be exaggerated. It's implied in the avoid that this is the bad kind of hot like a hot mess. Which just got me thinking. You could say, "Avoid it like a hot mess." Or if you want something more concrete, "Avoid it like Y2K." Problem is Y2K didn't actually turn out to be the total world meltdown that it had been made out to be. Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 12:01
  • Honestly, just stick with "Avoid it like it's hot." Its progenitor works fine and no one gets confused when Snoop says, "Pop it like it's hot." Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 12:01
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    I'm not sure I needed the mental image of Snoop Dogg 'voiding'.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 14:00
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    Nothing I have read on this entire post carries anything like the resonance of avoiding something like the plague - in my opinion!
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 16:58

Although I have not tried ascertain the origins of the term, which means I do not know whether it would qualify as new or not, however, as it can be used in similar situations, so take a look and see if it meets your criteria.

To avoid “X” as if your life depends on it.

With maximum, possibly desperate, effort or energy. (The Free Dictionary — Idioms Section)

He avoids Facebooks as if his life depends on it.

You could also use the following:

To run for cover

to run fast in order to avoid gunfire.

Just a glimpse or mentioning of X makes Y run for cover.

Mostly used in the army to indicate or announce to the soldiers that they urgently need to find shelter from enemy fire as the onslaught could prove fatal. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any credible sources to corroborate its usage. For that, you’ll have to spend some time on Google.


The current global health crisis is an obvious source of new suggestions:

  • Avoiding something like the corona virus.
  • Avoiding something like the rona.

COVID-19 is strictly speaking the name of the pandemic, whereas the name of the disease [severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)] doesn't quite roll off the tongue. For these reasons, the above suggestions sound better.


Let's move beyond the disease route, and focus on what people actually avoid:

Avoid it like gluten.

  • I'm getting downvotes like this is a joke (thank you faceless hero for the upvote) but this is very serious. People avoid gluten religiously. They alter their entire way of life to avoid gluten. How much work do you go through to avoid the plague or any disease mentioned here? It might be comical, but so is the idea of avoiding the plague.
    – Unrelated
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 1:27
  • 1
    I guess you got the downvote because most people aren't affected by gluten-related disorders, whereas the plague could infect anyone.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 15:20
  • 1
    The number of people really affected by gluten-related health problems is a small fraction of the number of people actively trying to avoid gluten in their diets.
    – barbecue
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 17:58

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