Did you hear someone say that they were ‘walking on a tight rope’? What does that mean, and where does the idiom come from?
In brief, ‘walking on a tight rope’ means being in a situation where extreme caution is necessary.
‘Walking on a tight rope’ is an idiom that refers to being in a situation where one needs to be extremely cautious.
This phrase references the balancing act that high-wire or tightrope acrobats perform. There is actually a long tradition of tightrope walking in countries around the world, and the performance is often associated with the circus.
Idiomatically, the phrase implies that someone needs to proceed very carefully in a difficult situation. For example, let’s say that you’re having dinner with your fiance, your parents, and your in-laws. You are worried about everyone getting along because they have very different beliefs and worldviews. In this situation, you could say that you feel you are ‘walking on a tight rope’ trying to keep the conversation light and friendly and not descending into disaster.
The metaphorical use of the phrase ‘walking on a tightrope’ is said to date from the first half of the 20th century. The word ‘tightrope’ dates back to 1801, and the object is named as such because of the way it is tensely stretched in order for a person to be able to walk across it.
This idiom comes from extending the act of actually walking a tightrope to other circumstances in life. As an example, a politician could be said to be ‘walking on tight rope’ when trying to find a solution to an issue that there are strong opposing views about.
The act of tightrope walking (also known as funambulism) might have originated in ancient Greece or even earlier in human history. The word ‘funambulism’ comes from the Greek language, with funis meaning “rope” and ambulare meaning “to walk.”
Tightrope walkers were revered in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome. However, instead of being an activity of Olympic athletes, it was more associated with entertainers and jesters.
Since then, funambulism has had a long and interesting history in countries like France, Spain, Turkey, Britain, and more.
If you imagine walking a tight rope, you can easily understand what the phrase means metaphorically. You cannot lean or step too far to either side; otherwise, you will fall off the rope. If you rush, you are also likely to make a misstep and fall off. Every motion must be carefully calculated; otherwise, your safety is in danger.
This is a phrase that can be used whenever you are describing the undertaking of a precarious course. It is a very illustrative idiom that is commonly used in American English and, therefore, likely to be understood by most listeners and readers.
How would you use the phrase ‘walking on a tight rope’ in a sentence? Here are some examples:
A number of notable figures throughout history have used the phrase ‘walking a tight rope’ or a variation of this phrase to make profound points.
“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”
– Edith Wharton
“In the beginning, you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking on a tightrope.”
– Henri Matisse
“A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.”
– William Arthur Ward
What are some other terms that convey a similar message as ‘walking on a tight rope’? Let’s look at some examples:
Searching for more idioms and phrases to add to your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog!