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The meaning and origin of the expression: Make a rod for your own back

Make a rod for your own back

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Make a rod for your own back'?

To 'make a rod for your own back' is to do something that inadvertently creates troubles or misfortune in the future.

The expression is usually used when someone has done something which seemed like a good idea at the time but comes back to bite them in some unexpected way. An example might be, "The British government made a rod for their own back when they supported Robert Mugabe becoming leader in Zimbabwe, as he spent the next 40 years denouncing them".

What's the origin of the phrase 'Make a rod for your own back'?

The expression 'make a rod for your own back' is sometimes thought to be Victorian in origin. This may be influenced by the similarity with the proverb 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. Actually, that isn't Victorian in origin either, although people widely believe that it is as it is seen a epitomising their beliefs.

In fact, 'make a rod for your own back' is much older. It is a variant of the phrase 'make a rod for yourself', which dates from at least the 15th century, as in this example from Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, 1485:

I fere me ye haue made a rodde for your self.

Make a rod for your own back.The rod being referred to in both 'spare the rod' and 'a rod for your own back' was the rod or cane used as a means of punishment. This was in common use in Victorian schools.

The first use of the expression in the form we now use is found later, but still pre-dates Victoria by almost two centuries. A religious tract by the 17th century author William Hughes entitled The Man of Sin, 1677 contains this line:

Oh how the good man smiles to see what a Rod we have made for our own Back!

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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