'A Leopard Can't Change Its Spots': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on November 15, 2023

Have you ever wondered what it meant when people say, 'A leopard can't change its spots'? If so, you've come to the right place. In this article, you'll learn the idiom's meaning, its origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

But if you just want to know what it means, here's the short version:

  • To say that 'a leopard never changes its spots' is to say that we can't change what's in our nature. It tends to be used pejoratively when we want to be critical about someone's traits.

What Does 'A Leopard Can't Change Its Spots' Mean?

The idiom 'A leopard can't change its spots' is used to convey the idea that a person's nature or character is unlikely to change, no matter how much they may try to appear different or improve themselves.

This sentence is a perfect example of how idioms can't be interpreted literally, although looking at the words individually helps us understand what they mean. In this instance, the idea is that just like a leopard can't change the fact that it has spots, or a zebra can't change the fact it has stripes, a person can't change the way they are, either. The only difference is that the idiom refers to physical attributes, but it's a metaphor for personality traits.

It's usually used negatively to talk about traits that we dislike in someone.

Imagine, for example, that you're chatting with friends about your relational problems with your brother. You might say:

He says he wants to move on like nothing happened, but the problem is, he is still the same dishonest person. After all, a leopard can't change its spots.

Notice that we use "its" without an apostrophe here, as it is the possessive adjective, meaning the spots belong to "it."

"It's" is the contracted form of "it is," so it isn't appropriate to use in this context.

Where Does 'A Leopard Can't Change Its Spots' Come From?

The idiom 'A leopard can't change its spots' has ancient origins and can be traced back to the Bible, specifically to the Old Testament. It is found in the Book of Jeremiah, which is part of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.

The specific verse is Jeremiah 13:23 (New International Version):

Can an Ethiopian change his skin
or a leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.

If this is true, this idiom is over 2.5 millennia old! Neat, right?

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

Despite his promises to reform, everyone knew that Mark's dishonesty was deep-rooted; after all, a leopard can't change its spots.

Sarah hoped that her ex-boyfriend had changed, but she remembered that old saying, 'A leopard can't change its spots.'

After years of reckless behavior, John was trying to convince his friend that he had turned over a new leaf, but she was skeptical as she believes that a leopard can't change its spots.

The manager gave her employee one last chance to improve his punctuality, but she had her doubts, since she knew that a leopard can't change its spots.

Even though he claimed to be a reformed criminal, many were still wary, remembering the old adage, 'A leopard can't change its spots.'

The politician's sudden change of position on the issue was met with skepticism by the public, as they believed that a leopard can't change its spots.

She had been a gossip all her life, and it seemed that she couldn't help spreading rumors; it was a classic case of a leopard not changing its spots.

Mary had a reputation for being a procrastinator, and her recent attempts to be more organized didn't convince her parents, who believed that a leopard can't change its spots.

Despite his apologies and assurances, his friends knew that a leopard can't change its spots, and they kept their distance.

The teacher had seen many students try to improve their grades at the last minute, but she often thought, "A leopard can't change its spots" when they made empty promises.

Other Ways to Say 'A Leopard Can't Change Its Spots'

There are plenty of other ways to say that people don't change. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • A zebra can't change its stripes.
  • You can't teach an old dog new tricks.
  • A scorpion will always sting.
  • Once a cheat, always a cheat.
  • A snake in the grass remains a snake.
  • A bad penny always turns up.
  • The wolf may lose his teeth but never his nature.
  • The fox may grow grey but never good.
  • What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says, 'A leopard can't change its spots,' they mean that a person can't change how they are because it's in their nature.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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