“Let Someone off the Hook” – Phrase Origin

Letting someone off the hook relieves them of obligations or consequences. The phrase also means giving someone an excuse for something they have done. But where does this known phrase come from? 

The origin of the phrase “let someone off the hook” comes from an old fishing practice, specifically fishing with a trap. The trap would be baited with fish, but sometimes they would wriggle until they fell off the end of the hooks and were free to swim away unharmed.

The rest of this article will take a look at the history of “let someone off the hook,” how to use the phrase and why it’s popular today. 

History Of the Idiom “Let Someone off the Hook”

“Let someone off the hook” is a very common phrase in English that’s used frequently and appears in numerous TV shows, books, newspaper articles, and blog posts. Letting someone off the hook means excusing or pardoning them from some action, responsibility, or consequence. 

It can also be expressed as “letting them off the hook.” The phrase may seem rather odd and obscure at first glance, but once you understand the origin of this idiom, its meaning becomes clearer. 

The Origin Of “Let Someone off the Hook”

You might be surprised to learn that this idiom has its roots in the fishing world, as the “hook” in this idiom is actually a fishing hook used to trap fish. The hook is implanted in the fish’s mouth, which is then reeled in and caught, which means that the fish is “hooked.” 

The hook in this idiom is, in fact, a metaphor for a responsibility or consequence that someone is expected to fulfill or “bite.” 

We encourage people to “bite” or take on responsibilities or challenges as part of their job, family life, personal growth, competition, or other things in life that they take on. However, sometimes people may need to be “let off the hook” or exempted from an obligation or expectation. 

This is where the expression “let someone off the hook” comes into play.

The actual date of origin is difficult to pin down. But because we‘ve established that the phrase comes from fishing, it makes sense to say it comes from the 1800s because the fishing industry grew during the 1800s.

New technology was developed to make fishing more efficient, which included new methods of fish preservation, as well as new types of fishing methods and boats. Fishing became so important to the economy that some people even began to use it as a metaphor for success.

What Is an Idiom?

An idiom is a word, group of words, or a phrase spoken or written as a single part of speech to mean something other than, or more than, what it is literally. It’s an expression that has a different meaning from the literal interpretation of the words. 

A common way to make sense of an idiom is to read between the lines. 

Because “let someone off the hook” is often used in place of the phrase “forgive someone,” it’s hard to determine the first instance this idiom was used because it’s something people might say in conversation without necessarily writing it down. 

However, we do know that the idiom was first recorded in print in the early 1900s. It’s still in use today and will likely continue to be used for many years.

What Makes Idioms Popular Throughout Time?

Every language, culture, and civilization has its own unique idioms – colorful expressions that, although seemingly nonsensical and random, often have a long and rich history behind them. 

Many idioms have been used so often throughout the centuries that they’ve become part of the fabric of our language. We don’t even realize they’re actually a group of words with a different meaning than their literal interpretation.

Examples of these idioms include: 

  • “Through thick and thin.”
  • “Under the weather.”
  • “Spill the beans.”
  • “Letting the cat out of the bag.”

Usage of the Idiom “Let Someone off the Hook”

In the following years, the idiom “let someone off the hook” became used more often in books and newspaper articles. People began to use it more figuratively, and soon, to “let someone off the hook,” meant to pardon someone or excuse them from an obligation or responsibility. 

Letting someone off the hook implies granting them freedom from something they’re obligated to do. It’s essentially an act of mercy that allows a person to avoid consequences they would inevitably have to face if not for your intervention, much like handing them a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

Except that instead of jail, it’s some undesirable consequence or obligation you’re removing from their life. It can also be as simple as letting them give you something without asking for it or in return for something else. 

Letting someone off the hook doesn’t always have negative connotations, as sometimes, it might be done out of love and compassion. However, in most cases, letting someone off the hook implies acting benevolently towards them while doing something unselfish on your part.

You Forgive Them For Doing Something Bad

If your significant other breaks up with you and then regrets it, you can let them off the hook by not holding a grudge and moving on from the relationship without resentment. 

You also let someone off the hook when you forgive them for their bad behavior. This isn’t to say, however, that you can let them walk all over you like you’re a doormat. You don’t need to tolerate consistent bad behavior towards you, especially if they don’t care about whether they hurt you or not. 

This means that an occasional slip-up can be forgiven and that you can “let them off the hook” this time. Be sure, however, not to let them walk all over you. 

If someone hurts you, you may have the urge to hold a grudge and never let them off the hook. However, you can let them off the hook by choosing to forgive them and moving on with your life.

Not Nagging Them About Chores 

You can let your significant other off the hook by not nagging them about their bad habits. You can also let them know you have every intention of taking care of the things they are bad at doing.

Here are a few examples of this:

  • If your husband is bad at doing dishes and leaving a mess in the kitchen, you can let them off the hook by doing it yourself.
  • If your child is bad at putting away the laundry, you can let them off the hook by putting it away for them.
  • If your housemate is bad at taking out the trash, you can let them off the hook by taking out the trash for them.
  • If your wife is bad at collecting the dog’s poop, you can let them off the hook by collecting the poop for them. 

Let Yourself “Off the Hook” by Not Berating Yourself Over Mistakes

If you make a mistake, you might want to let yourself off the hook about it, especially if it’s a mistake you’re likely to ruminate on. For instance, if you accidentally break a promise, hurt someone’s feelings, or make a mistake, let yourself off the hook by not berating and beating yourself up over it. 

Letting yourself off the hook means forgiving yourself and recognizing that mistakes are inevitable.


The history and meaning of a phrase are sometimes forgotten because it’s so ingrained in our language.

Surprisingly, knowing where “let someone off the hook” comes from creates a sense of comradery with our ancestors and an appreciation of the past.Particularly since we know that letting someone off the hook refers to a particular method of catching food that is less popular and little used today.