'Take the Bull by the Horns': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on October 18, 2023

Did someone tell you to 'take the bull by the horns,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

  • To 'take the bull by the horns' means to directly confront a difficult situation rather than avoiding it.

What Does 'Take the Bull By the Horns' Mean?

When someone 'takes the bull by the horns,' it means that they are dealing with something in a direct manner. In particular, it refers to confronting a difficult situation as opposed to avoiding it.

You'll also sometimes hear the phrase 'grab the bull by the horns,' which has the same meaning.

Where Does This Phrase Come From?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase 'take the bull by the horns' was first recorded in 1711 with the meaning of "boldly face or grapple with some danger or difficulty."

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'take the bull by the horns' has been in use since before the 1800s.

One example appears in The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology from 1834:

"Of a bold adventurer we say, that he has taken the bull by the horns; and of a petulant woman, that the curst cow has short horns."

Another example appears in the Appendix to The Black Book from 1835:

"The British constitution is in a dilemma, and in the chapter on the 'Catastrophe of the House of Lords,' we have taken the bull by the horns,' by shewing where the chief difficulty lies and the mode of extrication. Changes of ministers are only convulsive efforts to avoid an inevitable conclusion."

Potential Origin of This Phrase

Though the phrase is attested to the 18th century according to the OED, others state that the idiom probably originated in the American West. When the West was still a frontier, it was common for cowboys to have to wrestle with steers as a part of their everyday working life as cowhands and ranchers. Furthermore, this was something that is still done at rodeos for entertainment.

When trying to control a steer or a bull, a cowhand would have to catch it first. One of the most dangerous things you could do was try to grab the creature by the legs or the neck. Though it sounds counterintuitive, the only way to really catch a bull was to face the problem head-on (literally) and grab it by the horns. They could then pull it to the ground.

Examples of This Idiom In Sentences

How would 'take the bull by the horns' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "My favorite part of the story was when the protagonist really took the bull by the horns and confronted his nemesis despite his fear."
  • "Ever since Bill left, Sarah has been so lonely. I know that she says she'd rather be alone, but I think it's time for her to take the bull by the horns and put herself out there."
  • "John is so nervous about his freshman year at college, but I know he's going to do great. He just has to learn how to take the bull by the horns and seize the opportunity in front of him."
  • "For so long, I've been completely naive about what I need to do to succeed in this business. It's like I expect that opportunities will fall in my lap. From now on, I'm taking the bull by the horns and making my own success."
  • "I apologize if I'm being too harsh, but I think it's time for you to take the bull by the horns and talk to Sam about what's bothering you. He'll never know how you're feeling if you aren't able to be honest."

Other Ways to Say 'Take the Bull By the Horns'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'take the bull by the horns'?

Here are some options:

  • The world is your oyster
  • Seize the day
  • Carpe diem
  • Beard the lion in his den

Final Thoughts About 'Take the Bull By the Horns'

If you 'take the bull by the horns,' it means that you confronted a difficult situation head-on rather than avoiding it.

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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