The Persian proverb to play with the tail of a lion is used informally to say that a certain situation is very dangerous. By saying it, we alert the listener that the act which they are about to do is likely to result in their death.

Example: Driving too rapidly in a busy road is like [playing with the tail of a lion.]

Is there a proverb that would express the same thing in English?

I have already heard the expression to play with fire, but it doesn't quite work because the Persian proverb has a bit of a chiding tone- the speaker wants both to alarm and ridicule the listener. The aim is to say that the act is at the same time dangerous and foolish.

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    Aren't you the same person who asked about the cow with the white forehead? You must really like persian proverbs.
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 19:54
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    As a matter a fact , I am translating a short story from Persian into English .Therefore I have to ask many question to find the best equivalent to Persian proverbs that I come across. Besides , Persian is a poetical language in which you can find many proverbs , metaphors , idioms.
    – kazhvan
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:07
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    The questions related to proverbs and expressions are always popular , for this reason I have decided to ask only such questions :) ha!ha!ha
    – kazhvan
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:21
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    I don't know how important it is to arrive at a commonly used English phrase. If all you really need is to convey the meaning and the "feel" to a native English speaker, then the direct (naive) translation of the Persian phrase is already suitable.
    – John Y
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 21:32
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    @kazhvan - Absolutely.
    – John Y
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 21:52

22 Answers 22


Playing with fire is similar. However, it implies only that the activity is highly dangerous (or foolish), but not necessary lethal.


There is also sailing close to the wind - which means taking unnecessary risks. I'd guess this is also less serious than the OP's example.


If someone is really endangering their life, we'd say they're dicing with death


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    Oh, and I forgot 'skating on thin ice' ... which is also in the 'stupid, but not Darwin Awards stupid' category Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 16:12
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    I would say "playing with matches" is a variant of this, which carries the connotation of someone doing something more dangerous than he appreciates (which makes the situation effectively more dangerous than if he understood the dangers and was carefully trying to avoid them). Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 22:06
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    "Sailing close to the wind" tends to have an additional connotation of a calculated risk for expediency's sake - when you are actually sailing "close to the wind" you are travelling faster.
    – caf
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 6:03
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    "dicing with death"? I never heard that one, though I have heard "flirting with death".
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 3:24
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    Sailing close to the wind is risky if you are a sail-driven warship; too close to the wind, and you come to halt, bad news if someone is chasing you. So the risk is not going too fast, the opposite: losing all speed. Off to the library for you, to find Master & Commander. Twenty books later, you'll know all about sailing close to the wind :) Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 12:35

Don't poke the bear / Poking the bear

Urban Dictionary : A phrase of warning used to prevent oneself or others from asking or doing something that might provoke a negative response from someone or something else.

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    @kazhvan I'm native English (i.e. from England) and have never heard this before either. I think this might be an American saying (we don't get many bears in Britain).
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 19:56
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    I'm a native American English speaker, and I'm actually not familiar with this phrase either. Maybe it's regional. But even though I have never heard it before, the meaning is clear. The same can be said of "playing with the lion's tail". There is more than enough information embedded in each word that additional explanation is not necessary.
    – John Y
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 21:18
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    "Poking the bear" can also have the political meaning of provoking Russia. Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 22:30
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    (Just because we're all adding data points here...) Grew up in the PNW and totally familiar with this phrase. Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 1:13
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    Another PNW ("Pacific Northwest" - Oregon & Washington) native who grew up with this phrase. I also always imagined that the bear is hibernating. He sleeps and sleep, so it seems safe to pester him. Then one time you poke him too hard and wake him up. He has a nice little snack and goes back to bed with you in his belly.
    – Adam
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 18:54

I honestly think that playing with a lion's tail is perfectly acceptable. Colorful, descriptive English is rife with fun similes like that.

Skating on thin ice is like what you are looking for, but I think it misses the absurdity of playing with the lion's tail and replaces it with complacent obliviousness to one's predicament. For a similar reason, I think that playing with fire is also a little off, in that it connotes ignorant defiance of danger rather than bravado.

A more mundane, but commonly used phrase is taking one's life into their own hands. It generally means that someone will put his/herself into a dangerous situation where their own actions or skill are the only thing that will allow them to escape unscathed. I think this fits your example fairly well - Driving too rapidly on a busy road is like taking your life into your own hands.

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    "Tweak the lion's tail" is a recognized idiom in English.
    – Ex Umbris
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 5:50
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    "Tweak the lion's tail" is not a recognized idiom in English. (Let's see which comment gets more upvotes. ;)) Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 20:11
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    "Skating on thin ice" brings to mind very serious situations, with no humour involved, and doesn't necessarily fit all dangerous situations. For example, if someone liked to do parkour on a rooftop, you wouldn't use that phrase; "taking one's life into one's own hands" would be more appropriate. However if a boss wanted to warn one of his employees that he was dangerously close to being fired, the boss might say, "You're skating on very thin ice here mate, I'd be careful about what I say if I were you." I think this is what you were saying already, @TBear, but I wanted to emphasize this :)
    – Clonkex
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 4:10
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    I'm not sure about the typical Persian climate, but I imagine there's not much ice to speak of. So "skating on thin ice", while otherwise a perfectly valid answer, might not be that suitable in this particular context.
    – ZeroOne
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 17:39
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    @ab2 Oh, wow. I stand corrected then, thank you! But still, do they go skating when it's freezing??
    – ZeroOne
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 18:41

tickling the dragon's tail; Wikipedia, Louis Slotin.

Louis Slotin was a physicist on the Manhattan Project who died in 1946 nine days after his screwdriver slipped in the course of a criticality experiment.

Criticality testing involved bringing masses of fissile materials to near-critical levels to establish their critical mass values. Scientists referred to this flirting with the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction as "tickling the dragon's tail", based on a remark by physicist Richard Feynman, who compared the experiments to "tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon".

This phrase may be familiar only to physicists and nuclear engineers, but to them the picture of assembling by hand the elements of of a nuclear critical mass, and stopping just short of criticality, is the ultimate game of chicken.

See also Physics Stack Exchange, https://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/148569/why-did-tickling-the-dragons-tail-by-louis-slotin-not-cause-an-explosion, Why did “tickling the dragons tail” by Louis Slotin not cause an explosion?

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    Very interesting! However, I don't think it's commonly used by the general public.
    – 0xFEE1DEAD
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:00
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    On the other hand it is very close and stands a decent chance of being understood once looked up.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:56
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    @Joshua - You don't have to look it up to understand it. Just about any English speaker will know what a dragon is, and will immediately recognize that it's not a good idea to tickle its tail. Of course, the same can be said of playing with a lion's tail.
    – John Y
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 21:24
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    Pulling or tickling the [Insert dangerous creature]'s tail is widely recognized. The specific creature varies from place to place.
    – barbecue
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 1:07
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    JK Rowling (a British author) used this Latin motto for the school appearing in her Harry Potter series, Hogwarts: Draco dormiens numquam titillandus (“A sleeping dragon should never be tickled.”)
    – chirlu
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 12:58

Dancing with the devil.

My father was a policeman who used this expression all the time to describe the behavior of some of his "clients". Particularly the ones who almost got themselves killed doing stupid things.

  • Not bad . but not generally accepted
    – kazhvan
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 21:26
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    @kazhvan Do you mean it's not commonly used? Because it's widely used in my experience.
    – Clonkex
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 4:12
  • @kazhvan have heard this more frequently in the southern and midwest US. May not be as well known on the coasts but still conjures the right image. Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 14:11

The most simple expression I know of for this is to tempt fate

If you tempt fate or providence by doing something, you take a silly risk by doing it and depend too much on your good luck:

Cambridge Dictionary

So, as per your example:

Driving too rapidly in a busy road is tempting fate


I like the other answers here, but the playful connotation in the OP makes the question a bit tricky. I'll submit flirting with disaster as another option.

It still emphasizes the danger much moreso than the playfulness, but flirting is a pretty light and casual activity. It's also a more modern and less formal version of courting disaster, which makes it feel a little less focused on the danger (to me).

EDIT: Responding to a request for references, I looked up the phrases on Google's NGram viewer and found my assertion that "flirting with disaster" is more modern was pretty undercut! At least with regard to books published in English between 1800 and 2008 or so.

NGram Viewer

I still say that flirting with disaster is more common in speech, if nothing else, if only because flirting is in common modern use and courting is much less common. I also think that the Molly Hatchet song, Flirting with Disaster (released 1979) has probably been driving a lot of my familiarity with the phrase.

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    Can you edit to show your references? Thanks. Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:55

To fly too close to the sun, in reference to the Greek myth of Icarus is another option. It has more of a humorous connotation of foolishness than to play with fire. However, it can also connote ambitiousness or greediness which may not be appropriate.

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    AFAIK, "flying too close to the sun" usually implies the person doing it is too proud, rather than foolish. The myth of Icarus is generally interpreted as a warning against hubris.
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 16:41

An idiomatic expression which mirrors the lion metaphor and comes close is: ride a tiger


ride a tiger

To find yourself in a precarious situation.
The phrase comes from “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” Which is to say, once you find yourself in a dangerous circumstance, getting out of it can be even more potentially hazardous, whether to your health or your career.

Endangered Phrases by Steven D. Price Copyright © 2011 by Steven D. Price

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    Also: "to have a tiger by the tail", which I think is a more modern version. Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 16:58
  • I used to put a tiger in my tank, but then Esso got engulfed by ExxonMobil. Nice tails they had too: google.com/… Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 18:47
  • I haven't heard of this but would understand it based on context.
    – Jordan.J.D
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 19:24
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    "Riding a tiger" has the additional implication of "how do you plan to stop?", which the Persian expression doesn't have.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 22:19
  • I've heard tiger-related expressions (perhaps something like "poking a sleeping tiger") used metaphorically when extracting rocks from the bottom of a huge pile (in cave exploration). For some reason, the expression with a tiger feels less "foreign" than the same expression with a lion - I wonder if this is due to the large Indian influence on English compared to the much smaller influence from Africa? Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:50

There's a very similar phrase, "to beard the lion" (sometimes expanded with "in his den")

Confront a danger, take a risk, as in I went straight to my boss, bearding the lion

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    I would love to understand the downvote. I don't post on here often, but when I saw it on HNQs, I visited, and was surprised that there was no reference to bearding the lion. If there had been an existing (more thorough) answer using that phrase I would have instead voted for it. As it was, I saw an unexpected (for me) absence so provided a minimal answer myself. Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 16:57

"Mess with the bull you get the horns." At no point are you in control, of either bull or lion. There are numerous humorous uses of it in popular culture ("The Breakfast Club", "The Pacifier"). Quora had a good write-up for it

  • This is a good expression to use, but could you add the definition here, rather than linking to Quora? We want to create answers that are complete in themselves, as stated in the tour Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 5:00
  • Also: "mess with the cat, you get the claws." Also: "play stupid games, win stupid prizes." All of these are more like what you'd say after the horns/claws have been got or the stupid prize has been won, though. Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 20:14
  • A variation on this is "seizing the bull by the horns"... the implication being that bulls (and lions and busy traffic) can be managed but that the person is going about it the wrong way.
    – ssimm
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 9:10

Jim Croce said it best in "You Don't Mess Around with Jim":

You don't tug on superman's cape

You don't spit into the wind

You don't pull the mask off that old lone ranger

And you don't mess around with Jim

It must be said that I've heard "don't piss into the wind" at least as often as "don't spit into the wind," which presumably was sanitized for radio.

  • Great answer. I had just thought of the 'superman's cape' line.
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 11:48

Catch a 'tiger by the tail'. (Something too difficult to manage or cope with. Dictionary.com)

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    I don't think this is a good answer. To catch a tiger by a tail is to be in an untenable situation. You have the tiger, and you're safe as long as you can hold it. But you will soon tire and have to let it go, at which point it will attack you. You're completely trapped. Whereas with tickling the lion, you could stop tickling and perchance walk away unharmed.
    – user1359
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:42
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    Upvoted both answer and @user1359's comment - this answer is indeed "wrong", but since it's the most obvious naïve translation, it still needs to be listed here, along with the explanation why it's incorrect. Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 1:43

Dicing with death seems to convey the meaning you want. I have found no definitive derivations but this discussion suggests that it was only written down in the 1940s although the idea of gaming against death is much older.


to court trouble or courting trouble

Using court as seeming to be asking for circumstances fraught with danger.

  • Great suggestion - could you provide some references to show why this is a good answer to the question? Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:53

Dancing with the Devil (in the pale moonlight).

Belling the cat. (Though used mostly with things left undone.)

Playing with dynamite.

Jousting with edged tools. (Or playing with edged tools.)


Late addition to the list, but another idiom that may be relevant to the context is:

Belling the cat

To undertake or agree to perform a risky, dangerous, or impossible job or task. It comes from a fable (often and likely incorrectly attributed to Aesop) called "Belling the Cat," in which a group of mice decide that one will harness a bell to a murderous cat so that its jingle will warn them of its presence, though none want to take on the dangerous role.


I believe "poke a tiger with a short stick" comes closest in both meaning and spirit.

On a somewhat related note, it's pretty sad there used to be both tigers and lions in Iran until fairly recently, but both species are now gone.

  • yes , my friend . this is because politics of Islamic system.
    – kazhvan
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 13:51

More idiomatic than proverbial, but the person has a death wish


Cruising for a bruising


Acting in a way that is likely to result in punishment or harm. Often shortened colloquially as "cruisin' for a bruisin'."

Oh, you're cruising for a bruising if you keep talking to me like that!

Did you hear the way he insulted the boss during our meeting? He's really cruisin' for a bruisin'.

[The Free Dictionary]


There already is a very similar idiom, although a fairly rare one:

twisting the lion's tail.

The definition from Collins Dictionary

(American English) to tax the patience of or provoke a person, group, nation, or government, esp. that of Great Britain.

And of course, the lion was chosen as the animal because it is the symbol of the United Kingdom.


Poking a sleeping dragon in the eye

Playing with fire

Poke the bear

All can mean the same thing ultimatley

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    All of these have been given previously, with actual reference.
    – Nij
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 10:11

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