“Get a Taste of Your Own Medicine” – Phrase Origin

Idioms are a staple of the English language that express meaning in creative ways that cannot be conveyed in just a few words. One of the idioms that do this best is “Get a taste of your own medicine.”

“Get a taste of your own medicine” is from Aesop’s Fable The Cobbler Turned Doctor. The story is about a cobbler who sold fake medicine that he claimed could heal any sickness. However, when the Cobbler fell ill, he was treated with his own medicine. 

The rest of the article delves deeper into the history of the phrase “get a taste of your own medicine” and discusses its meaning and usage. If you’d like to know more about this favorite fable, keep reading until the end of the article. 

The Interesting Background Story of the Phrase “Get a Taste of Your Own Medicine”

It’s unclear when the idiom “Get a taste of your own medicine” came into usage, but it’s widely known that the inspiration behind it was one of Aesop’s Fables. Aesop, a slave in Ancient Greece who purportedly lived from 620 to 564 BCE, had a gift for storytelling. 

He wrote a total of 725 fables called “morality tales,” told to instill virtues or lessons. Storytelling was one of the best-known forms of entertainment in those times, so the fables also had entertainment value.

Aesop’s fables were typically allegorical myths. 

While some of his characters were human, many of them were animals portrayed as having human-like characteristics and engaging in human activities. In The Cobbler Turned Doctor, however, the characters are human.

The Cobbler Turned Doctor

Fables like The Cobbler Turned Doctor are the stuff of idiomatic expressions. They are striking, memorable, and relevant to the human condition across generations. This particular story is undoubtedly one of the most memorable ones and has been around since the 6th century.

As the story goes, a cobbler, unnamed in Aesop’s account, was frustrated with his trade. His lack of talent and skill in the business meant he couldn’t make an adequate living mending boots. 

The cobbler decided to change professions and began impersonating a doctor.  

He must have been quite the convincing con artist because he had more clients as an imposter doctor than he ever had as a cobbler. The cobbler concocted a medicine he claimed could undo the effects of any poison and heal all manner of illnesses. 

The con was successful, as he made a fortune selling his medicine. 

Perhaps it was the placebo effect, but the word of the cobbler’s miracle potion spread. It must have never occurred to the cobbler that he would one day, to use another idiom, reap what he sowed. 

In a twist of fate, the cobbler was struck by illness. One version of this fable claim that the well-meaning people in the cobbler’s inner circles treated him with his renowned miracle medicine that he knew to be utterly useless. 

The more widely known version claims that the governor sent for him after learning of his illness. 

Apparently, the governor had been skeptical about the claim that the cobbler’s medicine was a cure-all, and he saw the opportunity to put the claim to the test.

When the cobbler stood before the governor, the governor sent for a glass of water and pretended to put poison in it. He then ordered the cobbler to drink the water, assuring him that his medicine would be used to reverse the effects of the poison.

The cobbler, knowing full well the medicinal value of his medicine, feared for his life. 

In a desperate act of self-preservation, the cobbler came clean about the scam and confessed the con, saying he had no knowledge of medicines. 

The governor’s suspicions confirmed, he said to those who witnessed the Cobbler’s unmasking, “What folly could be greater than yours? Here is this cobbler to whom no one will send his boots to be mended, and yet you have not hesitated to entrust him with your lives!”

The Meaning of the Phrase “Get a Taste of Your Own Medicine”

The idiomatic expression “get a taste of one’s medicine” has many applications. It’s sometimes used to denote the karmic fulfillment of the Golden Rule: 

Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

While the Golden Rule is supposed to inspire benevolence, “doing unto others” in unpleasant, unfair, or uncouth ways is tantamount to inviting the powers that be to visit the same experiences on oneself, such as being dosed by one’s own medicine.

Getting a taste of one’s own medicine means receiving the same treatment one has shown to others. However, this has a negative connotation and isn’t typically used to describe favorable turnabouts. 

It’s implied that the “dose” is comeuppance deserved by its receiver

The fable doesn’t detail whether the cobbler felt genuine remorse for his wrongdoing. From all appearances, the confession of the con seems to have been made in a bid to spare himself from being forced to drink the poison. 

However, it seems to be implied in both the literal and figurative sense, or at least we can imagine, that the bitter irony was not lost on the cobbler that he had spun the very web of deceit that now ensnared him. 

The Usage of the Phrase “Get a Taste of Your Own Medicine”

The idiom “Get a taste of your own medicine” is used in various contexts and situations. While the circumstances in which it is used vary considerably, the universal meaning is to be treated the same way one treats others. 

Variations of the Noun

There are variations of the idiom. Some say, “Get a taste of your own medicine,” while others say, “Get a dose of your own medicine.” I personally prefer to use “dose” as it seems consistent with the theme of medicine.

Variations of the Verb

The idiom denotes that the “dose” is the natural consequence of wrongdoing towards others, but it can also mean retaliatory action for the bad behavior. To imply the difference, the verb is sometimes changed. 

To “get” a taste of one’s own medicine implies that one received a sampling of one’s own treatment towards others that was not intentionally given by the receiver. An example would be a bully getting picked on by another bully:

“Hector has been picking on Eric since the second grade. But today, he got a taste of his own medicine because he started high school. Eric’s older brother Andrew is a high school junior and taught him a lesson by putting glue on his chair like Hector used to do to Eric.”

To be “given” a taste of one’s own medicine implies that the comeuppance was intentional and most likely done to end the unwanted treatment. To cite the same example above, the victim of the bullying decides to put the bully in their place by retaliating:

“Hector got a taste of his own medicine today. Eric must have gotten fed up with his antics, and he put glue on Hector’s chair just as Hector has been doing to him. He got the whole thing on video and demanded Hector apologize for bullying him or else he would post the video online.”

Idioms With Similar Meanings

“Get a dose of your own medicine” is not the only idiom that conveys this meaning, as other phrases can be used to express a similar thought. If you’ve been paying attention, we’ve teased a few of them in previous sections:

  • You make your bed, you lie in it.
  • Dig your own grave. 
  • Trapped in your own web. 
  • Reap what you sow.

Final Thoughts

“Get a dose of your own medicine” was inspired by a fable from the sixth century about a swindler who sold a medicine he falsely claimed could cure everything. The con unraveled when the swindler fell ill and was treated with the same fake medicine he had been peddling. He confessed the con because he knew that the medicine was useless. 

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