“Beat Around the Bush” – Phrase Origin

Has a friend just asked you to stop beating around the bush? This phrase has an interesting origin story and is popularly used in English. So, don’t worry, they don’t mean a real bush, and you haven’t been accused of any violence.    

The phrase “beat around the bush” originated before 1440 in the UK. Game hunters would beat around a bush to get a bird to come out, making it vulnerable in the hunt. The first written example of this phrase was in 1440 in the poem Generdyes-A Romance In Seven-line Stanzas. 

In this article, I’ll explain the phrase “beat around the bush” and show you a few ways to use it. Additionally, I’ll give you similar expressions used in other languages and talk about what idioms are. 

How the Phrase “Beat Around the Bush” Was Invented

In the 15th century, hunters brought companions with them when hunting with the specific purpose of beating around a bush. They’d take large sticks and hit the area around a bush to get the birds to hop out. As you can guess, once birds hopped out of their bushes or flew out of them, they were hunted down by the hunters. 

This phrase was likely used through dialogue for some time before it was written. Our first evidence of this phrase being used is in a 1440 poem called Generdyes-A Romance In Seven Line Stanzas.

 The poem states:

“Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo / some bete the bush and some the byrdes take.”

Translated into modern English, this is: 

“But as it should have been said long ago / some beat the bush and some take the birds.”

In this context, we can assume the writer was saying that they should have said something long ago, but they aren’t one to take a bird from the bush with their bare hands, but rather one to beat around the bush. 

Interestingly, the poem we found this phrase in was discovered without credit! It’s an anonymous poem with no author to thank for writing this phrase. Even more excitingly, it is handwritten and exists at Trinity College. It is quite possibly the first non-biblical phrase to exist in our language. 

What the Phrase “Beat Around the Bush” Means

The usual meaning for the phrase “beat around the bush” is used to describe someone who is being indirect with their message. It refers to how you might beat down a bush to find something hiding in it, and when you finally get what you’re looking for, all the surrounding leaves are scattered about. 

The phrase is used to describe someone who is talking around the point or avoiding the topic at hand. It also represents a person who does not want to be direct about something.

People generally “beat around the bush” when they are uncomfortable talking about a certain topic, are afraid to voice their opinion, or would rather procrastinate talking about something important. 

As you can imagine, when you “beat around the bush,” it can be frustrating for the people you’re conversing with. However, you can easily avoid it by being direct and blunt. If you’re too indirect, people will get frustrated because they can’t understand what you’re saying. Additionally, if you are not being direct enough, people will get bored by your lack of clarity. 

“Beating around the bush” is a waste of time, and you’ll probably get more respect from your friends, colleagues, and family if you are confident enough to voice your opinion and direct enough to ask for what you want. 

Literal Meaning of “Beat Around the Bush”

As I’ve discussed, this phrase was originally used during hunting. In hunting, it’s crucial to avoid losing your prey. If the birds hide in a bush, you should be able to get them out quickly. Otherwise, simply beating around the bush is a waste of time. 

And this is where the phrase originated: instead of facing an issue head-on, speaking directly, and trying to solve the problem, people “beat around the bush” by going off-topic and making small talk. 

“Beat Around the Bush” Is an Idiom 

An idiom is a phrase or expression with a meaning different from the literal meaning. The figurative meaning is often derived from an analogy comparing two objects or actions.

Therefore, when someone tells you to stop “beating around the bush,” they don’t mean to stop beating a real bush. They are telling you to speak directly or “get to the point.” 

Other popular examples of idioms are: 

  • Bark up the wrong tree 
  • By the skin of your teeth 
  • Head in the clouds 
  • Pot calling the kettle black, etc. 

Alternative Forms of the Phrase “Beat Around the Bush” 

This phrase doesn’t have many variations. However, some use different forms of the same phrase, but it typically means the same thing. You may hear the following variations: 

  • Don’t beat around the bush with a stick
  • Don’t beat the bush

Both have the same meaning, requesting someone to get to the point. However, in English, we do have different phrases that mean the same thing: 

  • Jump to it (as in jump the point)
  • Cut to the chase (get to the thing you’re trying to tell someone quickly)
  • Get on with it
  • Cut to Hecuba 

Cut To Hecuba

The phrase “Cut to Hecuba” is the original “cut to the chase,” and it has some historical interest! It was used to indicate that a matinee performance would be shortened. It originated via the Hamlet show, where cutting out a certain scene and going straight to Hecuba shortened the matinee show.  

Similar Idioms to “Beat Around the Bush” in Other Languages

There are a few phrases that have the same meaning as “beat around the bush.” And there are a few that have comparable sentiments. In Tagalog, a similar meaning phrase is: 

Binyagan na yan!”

Which means “baptize it already,” meaning just get on with it. 

In Norwegian, there is a saying that goes:

Å snakke rett fra leveren.”

This translates to “speak from the liver,“ meaning speak without sugar-coating things and get right to it. 

An Example of “Beat Around the Bush”

You might find someone using the phrase “beat around the bush” when they feel there is a point with an urgency that keeps getting dodged. 

Other examples are: 

  • “Can we just cut to the chase? I don’t want to beat around the bush.”
  • “We can all agree that our boss is beating around the bush with this new project.” 

In the former, they may want to get information quickly without small talk or drawing out the time. In the latter, they may want their boss to tell them their expectations clearly. 

When To Use the Phrase “Beat Around the Bush” 

You can use the phrase when you want to get to the point of something quickly. You may also use it when avoiding an issue or taking too long to get there. 

For example, you could say, “I don’t want to beat around the bush, so I’ll just get straight to the point.”

Or, if you’re using it in defense, you can say: “Let’s not beat around the bush. What did you come to talk to me about?”

As you can see, though the words differ in each of the examples, they still have the same meaning. 

Final Thoughts 

The phrase “beat around the bush” originated before 1440 in the UK. It was used in a 1440 poem, Generdyes-A Romance In Seven Line Stanzas. 

The idiom describes someone who avoids talking directly about the point of a conversation. It describes people who talk around an issue, have bad manners, or lack self-awareness or even compassion for other people’s time. If someone asks you to quit beating around the bush, they mean get right to your point and stop adding in filler information. 

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