‘Walking on a Tight Rope’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on January 13, 2023

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.

What Does 'Walking on a Tight Rope' Mean?

‘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.

Where Does 'Walking on a Tight Rope' Come From?

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.

Examples of 'Walking on a Tight Rope' In Sentences

How would you use the phrase ‘walking on a tight rope’ in a sentence? Here are some examples:

  • “Ralph felt like he was constantly walking on a tight rope trying to get his work done without neglecting his own well-being.”
  • “You are always so hard on him– why don’t you try to put yourself in his shoes for once? He obviously feels like he’s walking on a tight rope whenever he’s around you.”
  • “We are getting into some seriously murky water here. It’s possible for us to come out on top, but it’s going to be like walking on a tight rope the whole time.”
  • “Samantha said she was rooting for her sister, but at the same time, she needed to be realistic about the fact that she is walking on a tight rope between success and failure.”

‘Walking a Tight Rope’ Quotes

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

Other Ways to Say 'Walking on a Tight Rope'

What are some other terms that convey a similar message as ‘walking on a tight rope’? Let’s look at some examples:

  • Walk on thin ice
  • Walking on eggshells
  • Tread lightly

Searching for more idioms and phrases to add to your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog!

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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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