'Bite the Hand That Feeds You': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 29, 2023

If you've ever heard the phrase 'bite the hand that feeds you,' you might have wondered what it meant. In this article, you'll learn the meaning of this idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it.

But first, here's the short version:

  • To 'bite the hand that feeds you' is to be unappreciative towards a person or entity that has helped you and betray them with ungrateful behavior.

What Does 'Bite the Hand That Feeds You' Mean?

This phrase is an idiom, which means it shouldn't be interpreted literally. So don't worry; we're not implying that you would bite anyone's hand. This is, in fact, a metaphor.

But to understand it, imagine for a moment that you did bite the hand of the person who feeds you; how would you label this sort of behavior? You might say it's ungrateful, unappreciative, and downright rude. And you'd be right.

  • The idiom "bite the hand that feeds you" describes a situation where someone harms or betrays a person or entity that has been providing them with support, assistance, or resources.

The dictionary defines it as follows:

to act badly toward the person who is helping or has helped you

In other words, if someone has helped you in any way, and you respond by hurting, criticizing, attacking, betraying them, or simply acting ungrateful, you risk losing the support they give you. Not only that, but it's bad manners.

Imagine, for instance, that you were promoted thanks to the support of your boss, and then your colleagues asked you to support them in a scheme to get the boss fired.

In this situation, you might say something like:

I can't help you get the boss fired, she helped me get my promotion; you don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Most commonly, you'll see this idiom preceded with the words 'don't,' 'you shouldn't,' or 'never':

Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you.

Never bite the hand that feeds you.

Where Does 'Bite the Hand That Feeds You' Come From?

The origins of this idiom are a bit unclear, but it has been in use for centuries. Some sources say that it was used by the Greek poet Sappho in 600 B.C., but there isn't enough evidence to support this claim.

The phrase likely draws on the literal idea of an animal biting the hand of the person who is feeding it. Over time, this concept was extended to describe human behavior, especially when someone acts against their own interests or shows ingratitude towards those who have helped them.

While the exact origin of the idiom is uncertain, similar expressions can be found in various languages and cultures, suggesting that the concept of biting the hand that feeds you is universal. It has been used in literature and spoken language for centuries, showing how important it is to recognize and appreciate those who support or assist you.

We do know that the Greek author Aesop alluded to the concept in one of his fables, A Gardener and His Dog. There are different variations of this fable, but they all lead to the same moral as the idiom 'bite the hand that feeds you,' as you can see by the following passage, spoken by the gardener character after he tries to save his dog from drowning:

Thou wicked wretch! said he, to injure the hand that was stretched forth to save thy life! The hand of thy Master, who has hitherto fed and taken care of thee! Die there as thou deservest; for so base and unnatural a creature is not fit to live. 

It was also said to have been used in the 1700s by Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman, philosopher, and politician who is best known for his writings on political philosophy:

Having looked to government for bread, on the first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them.

However, there is some debate and uncertainty about whether Burke actually said or wrote these exact words. The sentiment expressed in the quote is in line with his philosophy, but the specific wording could have been paraphrased or attributed to him after his time.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this popular idiom and its possible origins, let's look at some example sentences so you can see how it is used in real-life contexts.

After everything your parents have done for you, don't bite the hand that feeds you by ignoring their advice.

Despite being an amateur in the world of art, Sarah received a generous grant from a local foundation. However, she soon bit the hand that feeds her by refusing to follow their advice on improving her skills.

It's important for politicians not to bite the hand that feeds them by alienating their core supporters.

Susan received a scholarship from the school board; she should remember not to bite the hand that feeds her and work hard to excel academically.

As a writer, you shouldn't criticize your readers too harshly; after all, they're the ones who buy your books. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

The athlete insulted his sponsor during the interview, which was a classic case of biting the hand that feeds him.

After being given a well-paying job opportunity at the company just a fortnight ago, Sarah risked biting the hand that feeds her by constantly criticizing her new colleagues and supervisors.

After years of support from the community, it would be unwise for the local business owner to bite the hand that feeds the success of his store.

The singer's rude behavior towards his fans at his latest gig was a clear example of him biting the hand that feeds his fame and fortune.

Despite being the main supplier of flour to the bakery, John decided to complain loudly about the working conditions, unknowingly biting the hand that feeds him his paycheck. 

Other Ways to Say 'Bite the Hand That Feeds You'

Did you know there are lots of other ways to say that you should show respect and gratitude to the people and institutions that help you? Many of them are idioms in their own right.

Here are just some of them:

  • Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Don't burn your bridges
  • Don't turn your back on your roots
  • Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
  • Don't forget where you came from
  • Don't sow the wind and reap the whirlwind
  • Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
  • Don't undermine your support system
  • Don't harm those who help you
  • Don't be ungrateful to your supporters
  • Don't be disloyal to your helpers

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully, by now, you have a good grasp of this famous saying and know when to use it. It's applicable whenever you see someone acting ungrateful or disloyal towards people who have helped them. 

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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