11 tiger idioms and phrases
Native to the forests of Asia, this feline has snuck its way into several common – and a few less common – terms and phrases over the years. Besides referring to the cat, the word tiger is also used to describe someone ‘fierce, determined, or ambitious’. Thanks to the cat’s distinctive markings, the word is often used in the common name of other animals or insects, such as the tiger swallowtail. Let’s have a look at some notable tiger idioms and phrases.
1. have a tiger by the tail
To have a tiger by the tail refers to the act of having ‘embarked on a course of action that proves unexpectedly difficult but that cannot easily or safely be abandoned’. Similar to this phrase is the Chinese proverb ‘He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount’, which gave rise to the phrase ride the tiger.
2. put a tiger in your tank
Although this phrase may have started life as a 1965 advertising campaign for Esso Petroleum Company (the company’s mascot, now known as Exxon Mobil, is a tiger), the phrase has come to mean ‘to invest one with energy or “go”’.
3. paper tiger
A paper tiger refers to a person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual.
4. blind tiger
A North American English term for an illegal bar, the term blind tiger first appeared in the mid-19th century, probably because illegal bars, in order to avoid prohibition laws, were disguised as exhibition locales for natural curiosities.
5. tiger economy
A tiger economy (also known as a tiger) refers to a dynamic economy in a small country, especially in East Asia, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. The Irish economy was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ during a period of rapid growth in the late 1990s.
6. tiger mother
A tiger mother refers to a ‘strict or demanding mother who pushes her children to high levels of achievement’, in particular using childrearing methods regarded as typical of China and other areas of East Asia. The term was coined by Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
7. eye of the tiger
One of the best-selling singles of all-time, the hard rock song ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by the American band Survivor has become a go-to anthem during sporting events. In popular culture, the eye of the tiger has come to symbolize a feeling of power or confidence.
8. a tiger cannot change his stripes
A variation on the more common a leopard cannot change his spots, this idiom means ‘people can’t change their basic nature’.
9. the lady or the tiger
This phrase has its origins in a short story by American writer Frank R. Stockton, ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’, first published in 1882. The premise of the story involves an impossible decision (between, you probably guessed, a lady and a tiger), and the phrase has come by extension to refer to a problem that is not solvable.
10. tiger country
In New Zealand and Australian English, the term tiger country refers to ‘remote and inaccessible parts of a country’, i.e. ‘The construction of that road through some very difficult tiger country is now under way’.
11. tiger’s milk
Another alcohol-related tiger idiom, Tiger’s milk is a slang term for gin. It’s also the name of a Slovenian dessert wine made from overripe grapes.