Glossary Home Idioms

Bite off more than you can chew

“Bite off more than you can chew” is used to describe the possibility that someone has taken on more than they can manage.

“Bite off more than you can chew” is a common English phrase. It can be used to reference tasks, commitments, or even greed when it comes to power and responsibility. The phrase likely originated in the American West in the 1700s or 1800s, although the true original use is unknown. 

Bite off more than you can chew


Meaning of “Bite off more than you can chew” 

“Bite off more than you can chew” is used to suggest that someone has taken on more than they can handle. It’s an easy to imagine metaphor that depicts someone taking a larger bite of a food item than that which they can successfully chew and swallow. This task whatever it might be is likely to overwhelm and perhaps even defeat the person who has taken it on. The phrase is also used as a warning to others not to make the same mistake as the person using the phrase. In another possible situation, the idiom can relate to someone’s greed and their desire to take as much as they can. This might not always be a good idea, the idiom says. 


When To Use “Bite off more than you can chew” 

It’s possible to use “bite off more than you can chew” in a wide variety of situations. Someone might say it about themselves or about someone else, or even a group of people. The phrase could appear when a friend is issuing a warning to another not to take on too many responsibilities or not to promise too much. One might agree to tasks they don’t have the skills to accomplish or promise their boss or manager to do several don’t have time to. That person might want to get these things done but is listed by time, knowledge, or experience. 

It’s easy to use this idiom among friends, family members, and close colleagues. It could be inappropriate in some situations, such as when addressing one’s boss. 


Example Sentences With “Bite off more than you can chew” 

  • Be careful, you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. 
  • I tried to remind him of what can happen if you bite off more than you can chew but he wouldn’t listen to me. 
  • She bit off more than she could chew when she took on that third job. 
  • I know you want to please your new boss but it would be better if you didn’t bite off more than you could chew. 


Why Do Writers Use “Bite off more than you can chew?” 

Writers use “bite off more than you can chew” in the same way and for the same reasons that writers use other similar idioms and proverbs. It’s possible to incorporate phases like this one into dialogue in order to make the speech of various characters more relatable and easier to understand—at least for some readers. Often, idioms and proverbs are popular within one cultural group or another segment of the population. This means that those outside the group might not be familiar with the saying, at least as it’s used in that instance. This is something that writers are well aware of and can work in or against one’s intentions with a piece of writing.

In this case, it’s easy to see two characters debating taking on more tasks, acting in a certain way, or commuting to something and using the phrase while debating the possibility that it might be more than they can handle. 


Origins of “Bite off more than you can chew”

This phrase is one of many that does not have a defined origin. Proverbs, idioms, and aphorisms often evolve naturally over time. They start as one phrase or word and then become something else and they’re used repetitively within every day speech. Although the oldest written record of the phrase dates to the 1870s, it’s very likely that it was used for many years, decades, or even centuries before them. The book Western Wilds, and the Men Who Redeem Them by John Hanson contains the following excerpt: 

Our folks was all agin the war from the start. I was down as Manchester the day the hauled down the stars an’ stripes, an’ sez I, ‘Men, you’ve bit off more’n you can chaw;’ an’ they laughed at me.

Some believe that this quote, and others like it, originated with the habit of chewing tobacco that became popular in the 1800s in the western part of the United States. 


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