What does “Beat around the bush” mean?
“Beat around the bush” is one of the most common idioms used in the English language today. Unlike some, this phrase is still used regularly in everyday speech, as well as in written dialogue. Idioms steadily become overused and then cliche over time, meaning that they are less effective and interesting than they used to be. This particular idiom is also a great example of how confusing they can be for new or non-English speakers.
An idiom is a phrase or saying that requires context and multiple iterations to understand. It cannot be understood by simply defining each word in the phrase. “Beat around the bush” and “beat about the bush” can be used interchangeably, with the latter being far more popular in England and the former in America.
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Meaning of “Beat around the bush”
“Beat around the bush” is a saying used to refer to avoiding something. If you “beat around the bush,” you’re likely trying to get by without addressing a necessary topic. Alternatively, it can be applied more broadly to mean avoid doing something rather than just saying something. If you “beat around the bush,” you are circumnavigating the very thing that you probably should be doing or saying. You’re avoiding an important point of talking too cautiously.
Origins of “Beat around the bush”
This phrase ages back to the 15th century. Its first written record is in Generydes-A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, a medieval poem that uses the phrase “beat the bush.” The line reads:
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take
Another early example of the phrase in writing was penned by George Gascoigne in 1572. It reads:
To thinke bowe he abused was, alas my heart it bleedes:
He bet about the bushe, whiles other caught the birds …
It was originally used to refer to bird hunting and the acting of beating the bush so that the birds perching inside would fly away, allowing others to shoot them.
When to Use “Beat around the bush”
This phrase can be used in a wide variety of circumstances. This isn’t always the case for idioms, which is one of the reasons why this one is still so widely used today. A writer can insert this phrase into a piece of dialogue in order to remind another character to “get to the point” or cut short a long diatribe. It is likely that one character in a story is trying to avoid saying something, perhaps something that’s a piece of terrible news or something embarrassing.
Alternatively, they might be talking in circles because they don’t know the answer to a question. Rather than directly saying, “I don’t know,” the character might go out of their way to talk around the missing information, hoping that the other characters or listeners won’t notice. It’s easy to imagine a variety of situations in which this phrase is applicable. Someone might say it after another character spends way too long, avoiding the truth of a situation. For example, one character might want to end a relationship with another but is having a hard time getting the words out. Or, one character might have bad news to deliver to another, and they aren’t able to say what they mean directly.
Like most idioms, this one is colloquially used. It is not a part of formal speech, and readers or listeners wouldn’t hear it in a professional speech, paper, or presentation.
Examples Sentences with “Beat around the bush”
- Would you please get to the point and stop beating around the bush?
- She just kept beating around the bush and wouldn’t tell me what happened.
- I didn’t know how to get him to stop beating around the bush, I finally had to walk away.
- You really need to learn how to speak clearly and stop beating around the bush all the time.
- My mom finally ran out of patience. She told me that I had to spit it out and stop being around the bush.
- I know something terrible happened, if you stop beating around the bush, we can take care of it together.
“Beat around the bush” Synonyms
Equivocate, tergiversate, prevaricate, ambiguous, palter, and apostatize.
Why Do Writers Use, “Beat around the bush?”
Writers use this idiom in order to add to their dialogue. It is not something that transforms a sentence or scene, but it is a good interjection for when one character needs to remind another to get to the point or stop talking entirely. It’s always important to remember with idioms such as this one that writers use them or should use them in dialogue. This might be dialogue spoken out loud or within a first-person narrator’s mind. That narrator might be passing judgment on another character, wishing they’d stop “beating around the bush” and say what they mean.
- “Pull yourself together.”
- “Break the ice.”
- “Cut somebody some slack.”
- “Don’t get bent out of shape.”
- “Make a long story short.”
- “Better late than never.”
- “Get out of hand.”
- “That’s the last straw.”