Famous Sayings #125 — ‘Don’t Dish It Out…’

October 7, 2018

You just criticized Alice’s work ethic, but you got mad when she pointed out that you like to cut corners in your work. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.

don't dish it out, if you can't take it, you can dish it out, but you can't take it, famous sayings
Image by Drew Coffman via Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.

This should be a quick one. The meaning of this saying is fairly self-evident, and the origin is interesting enough.


What Does Someone Mean When They Say, ‘Don’t Dish It Out If You Can’t Take It’?

The saying “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it” means ones of three things:

  1. To literally serve food. In terms of cooking, cooks were advised not to serve (dish out) any entrees that they were unwilling to eat.
  2. To distribute something, like advice, information, money, news, etc. This is generally positive.
  3. To give out abuse, criticism, insults, punishments, etc. It pertains to how people treat each other, especially in the verbal sense. An alternative to this saying is “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.”

We usually refer to “dishing something out” in the third sense, and we are describing people who express harsh thoughts, harshly criticize others, or insult others. These same people could not take a fraction of the abuse they’re giving. Thus, this saying basically deals with hypocrisy and evenness. It’s similar to the saying “People [who live] in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”


When Did This Saying Originate?

I didn’t find a lot of information on this idiom, but two sources I found placed the origin of “dish [it] out” to the early half of the twentieth century.

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer (cited by The Free Dictionary), the slang term (defined in the third sense) arose in the 1930s.

At the Online Etymology Dictionary, the entry for the word “dish” in the verbal sense corroborates the information I found at The Free Dictionary. According to this entry, the phrase “dish out,” meaning “to serve food,” was first attested from German in the late 14th century. The phrase was first used to mean “to administer punishment” around 1934, and it was first used to mean “to disparage or denigrate” around the 1940s.


Do I Like This Idiom?

You bet I do. I like this saying because it is a tasteful retort.

Often, people don’t want to see their own faults while they harp on the faults of others. Sometimes, this is a coping mechanism and a distraction. Either way, the person who is being told, “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it” was being rude and hypocritical, to say the least, and they needed to be put in check. When this is done right, and the person being told is receptive enough, their stance may soften a bit.


Works Cited

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. 2003, 1997. The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Retrieved 7 Oct 2018.

“Dish out – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 7 October 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/dish+out>.

Harper, Douglas. “dish | Origin and meaning of dish at Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 7 October 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/word/dish#etymonline_v_37377>.

“What do the words ‘Don’t Dish it Out if You can’t Take It’ mean?” Answers.com. Web. Retrieved 7 Oct 2018. <http://www.answers.com/Q/What_do_the_words_%27Don%27t_Dish_it_Out_if_You_can%27t_Take_It%27_mean>.

“You can dish it out, but you can’t take it – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 7 Oct 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/you+can+dish+it+out%2c+but+you+can%27t+take+it>.

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