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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pull your horns in

Pull your horns in

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pull your horns in'?

Restrain one's ardour; lower one's ambitions.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pull your horns in'?

The phrase 'Pull your horns in' - meaning and origin.
The phrase 'Pull your horns in' originated
with the humble garden snail.

You might think that warning someone who had overreached themselves in some dynamic enterprise to 'pull their horns in' was a reference to some pugnacious horned creature, maybe a bull or a rhinoceros. In fact, the creature in question is the unassuming garden snail. The retractable tentacles on which a snail's eyes are located are known as horns, and these are pulled in whenever the mollusc is threatened.

Likewise, the date of origin of what has the sound of a fairly recent colloquialism, is not what might be expected. Snails were spoken of as 'pulling their horns in' as early as the 14th century. An example of that is found in this extract from the Anglo-Norman romantic poem, Richard, Coer De Lyon:

And gunne to drawen in her hornes,
As a snayl among the thornes

That citation uses the common alternative form 'draw in one's horns'. Other less common varieties are 'shrink/pluck in one's horns'.

An early use of 'pulling in one's horns' as a figurative phrase, with no snails in sight, comes in the 16th century religious diatribe Hay any Work for Cooper, 1589:

Mark how I have made the bishops to pull in their hornes.

[Note: 'Hay any work for cooper' was a medieval street cry of the coopering (barrel making/repairing) trade]

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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