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Left holding the bag

Q From Cam Moore: It is a common phrase in the USA to say that someone was left holding the bag. And the general meaning is that someone ended up getting the blame for a bad situation. I’ve done a little research but have been unable to locate its origin. Where does the phrase originate?

A It actually dates back to the middle of the eighteenth century in Britain. The original version was to give somebody the bag to hold, meaning to keep somebody occupied or distracted while you slipped away. Figuratively, it meant to leave somebody in the lurch, to let them stay around to take the blame for something that had gone wrong.

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.

There are other expressions of similar type and sense, especially to be left holding the baby, literally referring to a wronged woman whose lover has disappeared to avoid parental responsibilities.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Nov. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 30 November 2002.