Idiom: Leave someone holding the bag

Posted by ESC daughter on March 26, 2003

In Reply to: Idiom: Leave someone holding the bag posted by Jacqueline on March 26, 2003

: I'm usually pretty good with idioms but this one has me and everyone I know stumped. Please help by telling me just what the heck this means. Part of my assignment involves drawing a picture to represent this idiom. Please offer up some creative ideas for that also. As usual, my friends all got easy idioms and I ended up with the ridiculous one.

LEFT HOLDING THE BAG - "To be deserted by one's comrades and left with the entire onus of what was originally a group responsibility. Similar expressions are to be 'left holding the baby' and left to 'carry the can.'" From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).

Linguist Charles Earle Funk, in A Hog on Ice by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1948) said he thought the phrase had to do with similar expressions like "pig in a poke," where a person bought what he thought was a pig and it turned out to be a cat (as in "let the cat out of the bag"). The person was left holding the empty bag.

But in another book, Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings (1955, Harper & Row), Mr. Funk says the expression "left holding the bag" dates back to at least 1787 when it was used in a play and may refer to a "snipe hunt." A new boy in the community is invited on a "snipe hunt." The new kid is taken to the woods, left with a burlap bag and a lantern with instructions to hold the lantern over the open bag. The other hunters "return home hilariously to town and their own warm beds." The joke is that it is a hoax, there is no such thing as a snipe. The new boy is left alone all night in the woods.

When I think of this phrase, I think of the unluckiest member of a group of burglars. After all the others have split, he's the one left holding the bag for the cops to discover and arrest.