We were recently discussing the idiom "to be left holding the bag" and couldn't come up with a proper idea about where that might come from initially. Our possible solutions were somewhat goofy and involving a failed drug deal where the seller was left holding the bag of illegal material...

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    Left holding the bag - It actually dates back to the middle of the eighteenth century in Britain. The original version was to give somebody the bag to hold . You can imagine a criminal gang, about to be confronted by the authorities, telling the most stupid — or expendable — member of their company to hold on to the swag while they took appropriate action, that action being to travel very quickly towards somewhere safer. To be left holding the bag is the same idea, but viewed from the victim’s point of view.. worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-lef1.htm – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 12:44
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    LEFT HOLDING THE BAG - "To be deserted by one's comrades and left with the entire onus of what was originally a group responsibility. Similar expressions are to be 'left holding the baby' and left to 'carry the can.'" From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition). – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 12:49
  • Origin: Mid-18th Century, British and American English – The original form of the expression was “give someone the bag to hold” (to keep them occupied while you slipped away). The point of view has shifted over the centuries to that of the victim – the one holding the bag. – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 12:53
up vote 5 down vote accepted

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

To be left holding the bag (and presumably nothing else), "cheated, swindled" is attested by 1793. Many figurative senses [of bag], such as the verb meaning "to kill game" (1814) and its colloquial extension to "catch, seize, steal" (1818) are from the notion of the game bag (late 15c.) into which the product of the hunt was placed.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

This idiom grew out of the earlier give one the bag (to hold), which dates from about 1600 and alludes to being left with an empty bag while others have taken the valuable contents.

Etymologies given by resources that focus on a more general audience:

The Whole Ball of Wax and Other Colloquial Phrases:

The American form may come from the old confidence trick known as the drop game (q.v.) in which the sucker is left holding a (hand)bag filled with worthless paper

Safire's Political Dictionary:

a snipe hunt is an elaborate practical joke in which the victim is left in a lonely field at night holding a sack and a tennis racket, one origin of the phrase left holding the bag;

Idioms in the News - 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples:

As early as the 1500's, to give the bag (to someone) meant to leave them quickly. An early example that is close to the modern phrase was written in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson: "...if the bankruptcies of England proceed...she will leave Spain the bag to hold..."

  • Thanks for the extensive answer. Interestingly these seem to imply that the bag with which one is left is empty instead of containing suspicious items. – Mace Mar 13 '17 at 10:15

In BrE it's actually more likely to be baby, not bag...

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As with the AmE corpus (where bag is 10-15 times more common than baby), the usage didn't take off until early C20. Here are the earliest three instances of left holding the baby in Google Books (1905-1912), all of which put the expression in "scare quotes" - a very strong indicator that every one of those writers thought the expression was relatively new and/or might be unfamiliar to their readers.

Personally, I think the allusion to a woman being left to deal with the consequences of unplanned pregnancy alone would connect with the average person far more than criminals facing arrest, and foisting their swag bag on the most "expendable" (dumbest?) member of the gang.

But presumably that's because I'm a Brit, which is why my preferences are reflected in the extreme US/UK usage split on this one.

  • That's a very interesting aspect. I'm not a native speaker and didn't know the version with baby. I agree that an unplanned pregnancy would be closer to an average person's experiences than the criminals story. – Mace Mar 10 '17 at 15:42
  • @Mace: Whether it's BrE baby or AmE bag, whatever you're left holding is going to be a figurative reference in the idiomatic usage. But although I must have heard left holding the bag pretty often over a lifetime, I think I'd always be alert to the possibility that it might actually allude to being left holding the empty bag, which doesn't have exactly the same implications. In short, it's potentially ambiguous to me. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '17 at 17:46

Left Holding the bag :- It means the Person carries the blame of the theft/robbery on himself and his comrades escapes .

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    This sounds plausible, but how would readers, current and future, know that it's correct, and not just another folk etymology? Please add authoritative references and citations to your answer so that it can stand alone as a definitive, trustworthy, and conclusive response. – Dan Bron Mar 10 '17 at 14:23

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