In my native language, there's an idiom that someone warn you not to go into a dangerous situation when you're sure you'll get into trouble but you still feel like doing it. For instance, making jokes about your boss at work because he/she has shamed you in public. One of your co-workers might say:

Don't play with lion's tail!

Is there an English idiom for such a situation?

  • 2
    Don't bate the wolf. Don't poke the tiger.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 14:56
  • Also in my language there is this idiom, but we say: "don't play whit fire".
    – user19148
    Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 15:06
  • @GEdgar, Isn't it "bait the wolf" not bate? ...seriously, I'm asking. (I've been thinking about this since the recent question about bated breath.)
    – JLG
    Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 19:26
  • Bait, yes. There was a question about "bate" the other day, but here we are not making the wolf shorter...
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 19:29

9 Answers 9


I have an idiom and a proverb (saying) for you!

to play with fire

  • to do something that could cause you great trouble later
  • Example: "Don't you know you're playing with fire when you get involved with someone who's already married?"

Source: Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (via thefreedictionary.com)

There is a common saying using the same imagery:

If you play with fire, you get burned.

  • If you do something dangerous, you will get hurt.
  • Example: Joe said, "I have no sympathy for race-car drivers who get injured. They should know that if you play with fire, you get burned."
  • Example: My mother always told us that experimenting with hard drugs was playing with fire.

Source: McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (via thefreedictionary.com)

Idioms such as "to dance with death" and phrases like "there will be hell to pay" (or "there will be the devil to pay") are a bit too dramatic in this context.

I'm sure there is more, but I'll let others do some work as well.

  • I thought it was "dance with the devil" Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 19:13
  • Yes, "Dance with the devil" is close, but carries the additional connotation of immorality. Wikipedia offers a definition as follows: To do something immoral without question, to willingly take an unnecessary risk, to purposefully act in an evil manner. The usual connotation is one of extreme immoral prejudice within one's self [...] May also be used religiously as "willingly sinning against God" or to knowingly behave in a manner inconsistent with one's own faith or spiritual philosophy. Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 7:35

The phrase I immediately thought of is: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

It means: "The rash or inexperienced will attempt things that wiser people are more cautious of".

The Phrase Finder article states:

'Fools rush in...' has a precise derivation, in that it is a quotation from the English poet Alexander Pope's An essay on criticism, 1709. (Lines from the poem follow in this entry.)

It is pretty widely known, including being used in a speech by Abraham Lincoln and in the song Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread), a 1940 song sung by Frank Sinatra.


As other answers indicate, there many idiomatic expressions used to warn someone against doing something potentially dangerous. But in OP's specific case - warning a co-worker not to be flippant/disrepectful to the boss at work - I'd go for...

"Don't beard the lion in his den" (OED beard - v. oppose openly, with daring or with effrontery).


People who play with matches get burnt.


A couple of idioms that come to mind:


There's also

to kick the hornet's nest


There's a similar expression in English.

The trouble with grabbing a tiger by the tail is that sooner or later you have to let go.

It means that you should be wary of the consequences of your actions.


Don't mess with the bull or you'll get the horns is quite common and along with @FunmbleFinger's quote matches OP's situation perfectly.

  • I hadn't heard this one before. But "mess with the bull" only gets 668 hits in Google Books, against 66,700 for "beard the lion", so I don't feel ashamed of my ignorance. Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 0:34

I have always been fond of "There be dragons."

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