'Pull Someone's Leg': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on September 12, 2023

Did someone use the phrase to ‘pull someone's leg,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short: 

  • To ‘pull someone’s leg’ means to deceive someone in a playful or funny manner. Basically, this is a way to describe teasing or goading someone by telling them a humorous untruth.

What Does 'Pull Someone's Leg' Mean?

If you ‘pull someone’s leg,’ it means that you are playfully or humorously deceiving them. Typically, this phrase implies that a person is goading or teasing another by lying in a joking manner.

When you ‘pull someone’s leg,’ you might be teasing them, goading them into overreacting or leading them on.

There is actually an older meaning of the phrase that is no longer in use. Back in the late nineteenth century, the phrase to ‘pull someone’s leg’ meant to extract money from someone, such as by swindling them or by taking out a loan.’

With this idiom, you can change the precise wording to fit the context of the sentence. For example, depending on the circumstance being discussed, you could use any of the following iterations:

  • Pulling my leg
  • Pull his leg
  • Pulled her leg
  • Pulls your leg
  • Pulling our legs
  • Pull their legs

Where Does 'Pull Someone's Leg' Come From?

There is a bit of disagreement about the origin of ‘pull someone’s leg’ as an idiom. One common theory is that the phrase comes from Scotland with the original meaning of making a fool of another person. According to this origin theory, the most common implication of this idiom was that a person was making a fool of another by cheating or conning them.

You’ll often find the theory that the image of ‘pulling someone’s leg’ comes from the idea of grabbing a person’s leg to make them stumble and make a fool of themselves.

Here are some other theories about the origin of the phrase:

  1. Thieves would historically trip people by pulling at their legs. Once the individual was disoriented, they would take advantage of the opportunity to steal from them.
  2. During executions hundreds of years ago in England, there was, potentially, a practice of ‘hanging on’ where someone would hang on the leg of the accused to help give them a quick end. It’s unknown whether this practice actually occurred or is just a myth, and it’s unlikely that this is actually the origin of the phrase.

The Use of the Phrase in Historic Texts

Though it is uncertain exactly how this idiom originated, it is known that the phrase is American. It dates back to the 1800s and is found in print in a text entitled The Diary of James Gallatin, secretary to Albert Gallatin, a great peacemaker, 1813-1827:

“Mr. Adams is not a man of great force or intelligence, but his own opinion of himself is immense. I really think father, in a covert way, pulls his leg. I know he thinks little of his talents and less of his manners.”

Though this diary wasn’t published until the early 20th century, the author claims that his grandfather gave it to him. Many now believe that this is not, in fact, a genuine diary and was, instead, a fictional creation of Gallatin. One could even say that in fabricating the account, Gallatin was pulling his audience's leg!

However, we do find the phrase in The Newark Daily Advocate, an Ohio newspaper, from 1883:

“It is now the correct thing to say that a man who has been telling you preposterous lies has been "pulling your leg."”

Considering that this late nineteenth-century newspaper is explaining the meaning of the idiom to its audience is evidence that the phrase likely originated near that time.

Examples of 'Pull Someone's Leg' In Sentences

How would 'pull someone's leg' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “In the story we’re reading in school, the antagonist is constantly pulling the leg of the naive protagonist.”
  • “Don’t take him too seriously. He’s famous around here for pulling people’s legs.”
  • “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I think you’ve fallen for one of his pranks. There’s a good chance he’s not going to show up and he was just pulling your leg.”
  • “Jacob told me he had a dream where we all won the lottery, but I think he was just pulling my leg.”

Other Ways to Say 'Pull Someone's Leg'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'pull someone's leg'?

Here are some options:

  • Put someone on
  • Tease someone
  • Poke fun at
  • Yank someone’s chain

Final Thoughts About 'Pull Someone's Leg'

If you ‘pull someone’s leg,’ it means that you’re playfully deceiving them. Essentially, it is a phrase that describes telling a lie to someone in a way that is meant to humorously goad or tease them.

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

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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