What Does Once Bitten, Twice Shy Mean?

Whether you’re scanning through the radio stations, watching a television show or movie, or reading a book or article, you may come across the proverb and idiom once bitten, twice shy. Let’s explore the meaning and origins of this popular phrase.

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What Does Once Bitten, Twice Shy Mean?

You might expect this expression to be used when someone has been bitten, say by a dog or another animal. But that’s not the case. You see, as an idiomatic expression, this phrase is intended figuratively (learn much more about idioms below). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t think about a scenario in which someone has actually been bitten to arrive at the figurative definition. 

Imagine you’re playing tug of war with a dog when he suddenly bites you. Will you be eager to play the same game the next time you see the dog? Probably not. What about the time after that? Probably still not, right?

Once you’ve been hurt by someone or something for the first time—whether physically or emotionally—you’ll take extra care to avoid that person or the situation again… maybe even for quite some time. And that’s exactly what this proverbial and idiomatic phrase is used to express: being afraid to repeat an uncomfortable or unpleasant experience or incident, or to interact again with a person who has inflicted some type of pain on you. Although it can, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t ever repeat the scenario or that you won’t ever see that person again. When someone writes or says the phrase once bitten, twice shy, they’re typically sharing that they will be very cautious about putting themselves back in the same situation or interacting with the same person.

Here are some example sentences using the phrase once bitten, twice shy:

  • After my divorce, I don’t know that I’ll marry again—once bitten, twice shy. 
  • The salesman, once bitten, twice shy, shouldn’t be coming to knock on our door again. I made it clear we don’t need what he’s selling.
  • I was so scared on that rollercoaster ride. There’s no way I’ll get on it again; you know what they say, “Once bitten, twice shy!”
  • Even though it seems like a lifetime ago that I tried acting, once bitten, twice shy; I’m still not ready to try again.

A common variant of this expression is once burned, twice shy. It has the same meaning as once bitten, twice shy, and you can use it in all of the same circumstances to express that you’re hesitant to endure an unpleasant experience for a second time.

The Origins of Once Bitten, Twice Shy

The phrase is often attributed to the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop as the moral of one of his fables about a dog and a wolf, later translated by William Claxton in the 1400s. In the tale, a wolf is about to eat a dog when the dog convinces the wolf to wait so he can fatten himself up first. The wolf agrees. When the wolf later demands the dog give himself up to be eaten, the dog of course refuses. His trick worked, after all! The translation of the moral doesn’t read exactly how we know the phrase today, although it is similar and suggests that once someone has let themselves be fooled once, they won’t let themselves be fooled again. 

It’s important to note here that in British English, particularly around the turn of the 19th century, the term bite was often used to describe a bad experience. In other words, to say one was bitten in the figurative rather than literal sense, i.e. harmed or let down, as implied by the idiom one bitten, twice shy. Thus in British literature, we can find many examples of similar expressions to the proverb as we now know and use it. For example, Eliza Fowler Haywood writes in her 1751 novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless:

“I have been bit once, and have made a vow never to
settle upon any woman while I live, again.”

In her 1806 work Lady Maclairn, The Victim of Villany, Rachel Hunter writes:

“My wife says that the Captain is very fond of her, and if all be gold that glitters, I am to believe that he doats upon her; but once bit twice shy, is the maxim uppermost with me, when the Captain is concerned.”

A near-match of the phrase can also be found in the 1850s novel Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour by Robert Smith Surtees. Around the same time, in 1857, a very similar proverb appeared in William Scarborough’s A Collection of Chinese Proverbs. It read, “Once bitten by a snake in passing by, a second time he will of grass be shy.”

The Phrase Gets a Pop-Culture Boost

Many people know the expression from the song by the same name, written by Ian Hunter and recorded and performed by the band Great White to great acclaim in the late 1980s. The lyrics describe a man hurt by love and a girl that can’t be counted on.

In fact, the idiom makes up the majority of the song’s catchy chorus:

“I said my, my, my, I’m once bitten twice, shy babe
My, my, my, I’m once bitten twice shy baby
My, my, my, I’m once bitten twice shy baby”

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Once bitten, twice shy is both an idiom and a proverb. 

An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning: They don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

You now know that the phrase once bitten, twice shy isn’t used to describe a situation in which someone has literally been bitten (although it could be used in this way). It is most often used figuratively when a person has been hurt or otherwise let down by someone or something and is thus afraid of having the same bad experience happen to them again. When they use this idiom, they’re sharing that they feel the need to be cautious when it comes to that person or situation in the future.

A proverb is a short, common phrase or expression that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage and aphorism. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Actions speak louder than words.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Synonyms for Once Bitten, Twice Shy

There are a variety of words and phrases that can be used instead of once bitten, twice shy to express the same or a similar sentiment. You may not be able to replace the phrase in a sentence exactly as written with the words and phrases in the list below; however, you can use them to share the idea that something bad has happened to you and you want to avoid a bad experience again. You can also consult a thesaurus and type in some of these examples if you wish to look up additional terms and new words to use. A dictionary entry for any of the words below may also lead you to more synonyms.

  • Cautious
  • Careful
  • Wary
  • Fearful
  • Suspicious
  • Watchful
  • Vigilant
  • Distrustful
  • Hesitant
  • On guard
  • Guarded
  • On one’s toes
  • Risk-averse
  • Prudent
  • Measured
  • Mindful
  • Alert
  • On alert
  • Eyes peeled

Summary

The proverb and idiomatic phrase once bitten, twice shy is used when a person has been unsuccessful at doing something or otherwise been hurt in or by a situation. As a result, they are afraid to put themselves in that scenario for a second time. In other words, it’s used when someone wants to share they’ve had a bad experience that they don’t want to repeat. It’s possible that a version of the expression dates back to the 1400s, although it became more widely used in the 1800s and rose to immense popularity in the 1980s with Great White’s chart-topping hit by the same name.