What does the phrase ‘burn bridges’ mean, and where does it come from?
‘Burn bridges’ is a phrase that is used to describe making a decision that can’t be changed in the future or acting unpleasantly in a situation in a way that ensures you won’t be welcome to return again.
In short, it means to commit oneself to an irreversible course and is often used to describe ruining a relationship to the point that it cannot be repaired.
‘Burn bridges’ or ‘burn one’s bridges’ is an idiomatic phrase that means “to destroy one’s path, reputation, connections, opportunities, etc.” This phrase is particularly used when someone intentionally cuts off their relationships with others or opportunities.
Originally used in the military sense of cutting off one’s own retreat intentionally (i.e., burning a bridge that one has crossed) and therefore committing oneself to a specific course of action, this phrase later started being used to mean to “alienate oneself from former friends or connections.”
Another way to explain the idiomatic meaning of ‘burn bridges’ is to say that one is behaving so as to destroy or ruin any chance one has of returning to a specific status quo.
The original use of the phrase ‘burn bridges’ or ‘burn one’s bridges’ was used in the military sense of literally burning the bridge that they had crossed in a way that intentionally cuts off one’s own retreat. By performing this bold action, an army is committing itself to a particular course of action without the ability to backtrack.
There is also a phrase ‘burn one’s boats,’ which, along with ‘burn bridges,’ is thought by some to have originated in ancient Rome, but other sources list ‘burn one’s bridges’ as attested by 1892 by Mark Twain. In this latter understanding of the origin, it is thought that the phrase might stem from the “reckless cavalry raids” that occurred during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s.
We can see the use of the phrase ‘burn bridges’ in Twain's 1892 novel The American Claimant, where he writes:
“It might be pardonable to burn his bridges behind him.”
The idea that this phrase comes from ancient Rome has to do with the fact that there was a tactic in Roman warfare to literally destroy bridges. This would sometimes happen in order to make it, so the enemy wasn’t able to flee. In other cases, bridges would be destroyed that Roman armies had just crossed in order to leave no possible course of retreat.
By burning bridges behind them, Roman armies only had two choices: be victorious or die. There was no option to run back the way they came.
Ancient armies also sometimes burned the boats that they arrived on once they reached an enemy’s shore. This made it, so soldiers had no means of retreat.
The phrase is thought to have entered common usage in the 1800s, and the phrase ‘burn one’s boats’ is said to be about a quarter-century older than ‘burn one’s bridges’ in terms of common usage. The former is a primarily British phrase.
According to a 1959 article in the journal American Speech, ‘burn one’s boats’ is an older expression than ‘burn one’s bridges,’ and there is a version of ‘burn one’s boats’ in French, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Latin, and German.
In this article by Winston A. Reynolds, he suggests that the etymology of the phrase comes from the legendary and historical accounts of deliberately burning one’s own boats in antiquity in order to encourage military victories.
There is actually an example of this from all the way back in the seventh century BC in a work that is attributed to a contemporary of Confucius known as Tso Kiu-Ming:
“Miu-Kung, the Earl of Tsin, invaded the marquisate of Tsin: after crossing the river he burnt his boats, took the castle of Wang-Kwan, and even approached its capital.”
According to a third-century AD Chinese scholar named Tu Yii, the reason Miu-Kung burned his boats was to display “his determination never to return without victory.”
When you hear someone these days talk about having ‘burned bridges’ or ‘burned boats,’ though, they most likely aren’t being literal. Instead, they are using the figurative meaning of the phrase that often relates to relationships, connections, and opportunities.
In this idiomatic usage, the phrase can mean “to make a decision that can’t easily be changed in the future” or “to act in a way that ensures that a relationship is over forever.”
It can also be described as “doing something that can’t easily be reversed or undone in the future.” Commonly, someone will say that they ‘burned their bridges’ after they acted unfavorably, unpleasantly, or offensively to such an extent that they ensured that certain opportunities or relationships are no longer available to them in the future.
How would you use the idiom ‘burn bridges’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples.
‘Burn bridges’ is a well-known phrase that shows up in a number of quotes by famous figures. Here are some that can help you further understand the meaning of this idiom:
“Great men burn bridges before they come to them.”
– e. e. Cummings
“You know the hardest thing to do in Hollywood is burn bridges. There is usually some sucker who still likes me. There is usually some sucker who will still work with me.”
– Terry Gilliam
“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
– Tom Stoppard
“Unless you work in demolition, don’t burn bridges.”
– Harvey Mackay
“Never burn bridges. Today’s junior jerk, tomorrow’s senior partner.”
– Sigourney Weaver
“I demolish my bridges behind me - then there is no choice but forward.”
– Fridtjof Nansen
“We should think seriously before we slam doors, before we burn bridges, before we saw off the limb on which we find ourselves sitting.”
– Richard L. Evans
“Don't burn bridges. You'll be surprised how many times you have to cross the same river.”
– H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
“Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.”
– Don Henly
What are some other words or phrases that are synonymous or similar to ‘burn bridges’? Let’s look at some examples:
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