Famous Sayings: #60 — ‘Mess with the Bull…’

May 5, 2017

When you mess with the bull, you’ll get the horns.

mess with the bull, get the horns, famous sayings
Charging Bull in New York City. Photo by Sam valadi via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I picked this idiom because it’s May and I have a little bit of an interest in astrology. (Although I heard we could be off with our calendar. There may be even more constellations we chose not to include in our twelve-month calendar.)

Anyway, if you were born between April 20 and May 20, you are a Taurus, which is the bull.

Now, this was a rather hard idiom to research. There is not a lot to suggest where or when this saying developed, although I have a common idea.

First, let’s look at the meaning.

What Does ‘When You Mess with the Bull, You’ll Get the Horns’ Mean?

Yeah, one of my first stops was Wikiquote since it does have some good referencing for complete entries. Alas, I was only able to find this definition:



when you mess with the bullyou get the horns

  1. (informal) If you provokesomebody, you can expect an aggressive reaction.


I agree with this. It deals with interpersonal relationships, but it could be applied to groups of people who provoke one person or another group.

Now, here’s another take:

I also came across a 2003 article by John Warner entitled, “Mess With the Bull, You’ll Get the Horns.” In it, he talked about a hazing incident involving students from Glenbrook North High School in Glenbrook, Illinois. I will not describe the incident, but it the school administrators, upon punishing the seniors involved, were met with a lawsuit from at least one of those girls.

The whole point of Warner’s article was the need for people to learn about consequence. He was a professor and he sometimes dealt with students who needed to learn that lesson.

But I guess his lesson pertains to the meaning I posted above, because a consequence of provoking someone could be their ire (or vengeance).

What Do I Think About the Proverb’s Original Origin?

I know I’m not alone in thinking this saying may have originated from bullfighting. It is such a dangerous and brutal sport. (You can tell by some of the images you’ll find in a search. Ouch.)

However, I was unable to find a link between this idiom and the history of bullfighting.

What Did I Find?

There were three somewhat helpful sources I consulted for this.


On Shmoop, I found an entry that describes the scene from “The Breakfast Club” where the five teenagers in detention were being dressed down in their high school library by Assistant Principal Richard Vernon (played by the late Paul Gleason). Before he left, Vernon was insulted by bad boy John Bender (played by Judd Nelson), who asked the educator if he borrowed his wardrobe from Barry Manilow. In response, Vernon says, “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”

In this 6-second clip from “The Breakfast Club,” “Richard ‘Dick’ Vernon” is seen talking to “John Bender.”


At Quora, someone submitted the question “Where did the phrase, ‘If you mess with the bull you get the horns’ originate?” There were four total answers as of September 5, 2016, and the best one was presented by Jon Pennington.

In his answer, Pennington cited five sources were a version of the phrase was used.

  • In 2010, there was an email chain from members of the American Dialect Society. The chain could be found on Listserv. At the top of the page, one member said he heard a crude version of the phrase while he was serving in the Army in 1961.
  • There is another version of the phrase, “Play with the bull and you will get the horns” in a 1965 issue of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. The phrase can be found in a list entitled “Folk Wisdom in Northeaster Kentucky.”
  • In Great Britain, the phrase “to get the horns,” which meant that a man was being cuckolded, was becoming popular around the turn of the 20th
  • In the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” the phrase was part of one of Paul Gleason’s lines. His character, assistant principal “Richard ‘Dick’ Vernon,” said this to “John Bender” (played by Judd Nelson): “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”
  • More recently, the phrase was used by Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory in the episode “The Troll Manifestation.”

Pennington recognizes that a number of his fellow Quora users believed that the phrase somehow originated from bullfighting, which is a Spanish tradition. However, he believes it might have originated from cattle ranching in the United States.

In June 24, 2016. Andy Kerr said he thought the phrase has a literal origin. He then proceeded to show some disturbing pictures of men being gored by bulls.

The American Dialect Society

This email chain contains messages from three people: Victor Steinbok, Charles Doyle, and Wilson Gray. The two are talking about the origin of the phrase but no one can seem to pinpoint the origin.

I accessed this chain via Gray’s message. The page had the two previous emails on the same page.

Gray’s Message

Gray’s message is especially crude (due to the use of the F-word). He heard of one version of the saying as when he was enlisted in the Army around 1961. The phrase was used as a reference to punishment for failing to follow standard operating procedure (S.O.P.).

Gray also said the idiom made him think of bullfighting.

Doyle’s Message

Doyle had a very short message:

1967  George W. Boswell, “Folk Wisdom in Northeastern Kentucky,” _Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin_ 33: 14.  “Play with the bull and you will get the horns.”

Not the origin, of course . . . .

Steinbok’s Message

It looks like Steinbok’s was the original message and it had quite a bit of references. Here are the pertinent ones:

Volume 3 of The English Dialect Dictionary (Edited by Joseph Wright and published in 1902) has a definition for “to get the horn” as meaning “to be lustful.” The term “to get the horns” meant “to be made a cuckold.”

The term “to get the horns” was apparently taken from Lauderdale’s Poems (1796). Here is what I was able to find on Page 96-97 under the title “On Women’s Wit”:

That women’s wife, man needna’ dout,
Or seek the least affertion;
For never yet in a dispute,
In earnest or diversion,
I ever kent them beaten out,
Which lang I ha’e remarkit,
An’ him the victor’s horn can toot,
I wish that he wad clark it.
An’ if he print it in a book,
He needna fash to cry them,
Because to learn the way he took,
There’s mony a ane wad buy them.

Steinbok also mentioned Pictures of Travel. I was able to find this passage:

On this account the bathing places of the two sexes are far apart, and yet not altogether too far, and he who carries a good spy-glass, can everywhere in this world see many marvels. There is a legend of the island that a modern Actæon in this manner once beheld a bathing Diana, and wonderful to relate, it was not he, but the husband of the beauty who got the horns!

About Actæon

According to Greek Mythology, Actæon viewed Artemis (known as Diana in Roman mythology, the goddess of the moon) naked when she was bathing.

Now, there are two versions of this story:

  • In one version, Actæon incurred the wrath of Artemis, who turned him into a deer (with horns). He was then hunted by his dogs.
  • In another version, Artemis caught Actæon but told him not to tell anyone what he saw. Actæon turned himself into a deer and he was hunted by his dogs.

He basically “got the horns” and faced the consequences of viewing a goddess in the nude.

What Do You Think?

It seems like the saying did arise from various sources and the modern saying was later attached to a bull. It’s only natural. Do you agree?

Works Cited

Heine, Heinrich. Pictures of Travel. Schaefer & Koradi; 1871. Translated from the original German by Charles Godfrey Leland; 1873. Print. Page 153.

Lauderdale, John. A Collection of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Printed by J. Robertson; 1796. Print. Pages 97-98.

Noddy Osborne. “Don’t mess with the bull.” YouTube. 25 Nov 2013. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDzWyhXonMU>.

“Quotes – Don’t mess with the bull, young man.” Shmoop. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2017. Web. <http://www.shmoop.com/quotes/mess-with-the-bull.html>.

Various. “origin of ‘mess with the bull, get the horns’?”  The Linguist List. Web. Retrieved 5 May 2017. <http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2010-May/099194.html>.

Various. “when you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” Wikitionary. Last Updated 2 Aug 2016. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2017. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/when_you_mess_with_the_bull,_you_get_the_horns#English>.

Various. “Where did the phrase, “If you mess with the bull you get the horns” originate?.” Quora. Web. Retrieved 28 Apr 2017. <https://www.quora.com/Where-did-the-phrase-If-you-mess-with-the-bull-you-get-the-horns-originate>.


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