As The Merriam Dictionary says it means to to get into trouble because of failing to do what is required by (the law, a rule, etc.) For example:

After leaving school she fell foul of the law and spent time in jail.

I have been trying to find something on its origin on the internet, but I cannot find anything. To me as a non-native english speaker the phrase sounds so odd that I am desperate to find out its origin.

  • 1
    I haven't researched it yet, but it might have something to do with fouls in baseball.
    – Bread
    Jul 5, 2018 at 21:49
  • 2
    The most common idiom is probably "fell afoul of the law".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 6, 2018 at 0:12

1 Answer 1


According to An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English the expression has a nautical origin meaning become entangled.

When one ship impedes the progress of another; it falls foul of it. A foul anchor is when its own rope becomes entangled with itself.

and the AHD lists the following meanings:

fall foul/afoul:

  1. Nautical To collide. Used of vessels.
  2. To clash: fell foul of the law.

From the following sense of foul:

Meaning "become entangled" (chiefly nautical) is from 1832, probably from foul (adj.) in the sense "obstructed by anything fixed or attached" (late 15c.).


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