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shameless pleading





Ears pinned back

Get offa me.

Dear Word Detective: The expression “they got their ears pinned back” is sometimes used in U.S. sports contexts and seems to mean that the winning team decisively defeated the losing team. It would be the losing team that got its “ears pinned back.” A web search indicated that in the U.K., the phrase seems to have meanings relating to paying attention to someone or to be disciplined by someone. What are the roots of the notion of pinning back ears, for any purpose? — Rich Kretschmann.

That is, as we say in the word biz, a darn good question. As a matter of fact, it’s a question that’s been rattling around in the back of my own mind for several decades, but I’ve never quite gotten around to investigating it. Hey, I’ve been busy.

“To have one’s ears pinned back” means to be chastised, scolded or verbally disciplined in a very forceful manner, or, by extension, to be soundly defeated in a contest or an argument. It’s an American phrase that first appeared in the mid-19th century, and although “to have one’s ears pinned back” is by far the most common form, the Dictionary of American English also lists “to get one’s ears knocked down” and “to get one’s ears chewed down” as synonyms meaning “to receive a severe scolding.” All of these phrases are, incidentally, distinct from such sayings as “to have one’s ears lowered,” meaning to get a haircut. The British use of “pin one’s ears back” to mean “pay close attention” appears to refer to an animal raising its ears in alertness, an action also known as “pricking up” its ears.

The key to understanding “to have one’s ears pinned back” comes from the animal kingdom, where the state of a critter’s ears (especially those of horses and dogs) serves as a window into the animal’s mental state. A horse, for instance, will normally hold its ears erect, alert, presumably, for the sound of oats and apples. But when frightened or angry, the horse will put its ears back against its head, a reflex also familiar to anyone who has ever shouted at Fido for sleeping on the sofa. From an evolutionary standpoint, this reflex makes sense, as the ears are among the most vulnerable, sensitive and easily injured parts of the body. Especially in dogs, to put the ears back against the head also serves as a sign of submission to a threat (perhaps from a larger dog or angry human), an attempt to forestall an attack or physical punishment.

One slightly tricky aspect of “to have one’s ears pinned back” is that the passive voice of “pinned” makes it sound as if Aunt Becky actually does something unpleasant with clothespins to little Timmy’s ears. But “having one’s ears pinned back” really just means “to be forced into visible submission and defeat.”

33 comments to Ears pinned back

  • tammi swanson

    Dont forget that to have a dogs ears pinned back is something commonly done with certain breeds. For example; the Boxer.

  • johnducmanis

    I always thought it was the power of the recrimination, a mighty blast of invective, that blew the ears back close to the head.

  • cm2006

    I disagree with the original post on sports contexts


    I’ve listened to pro football (nfl) games for years. The most common usage is that defensive linemen are rushing the quarterback with everything they’ve got, as in “the lineman are coming at the QB with their ears pinned back.”

    I’ve never heard it used in the nfl at least to talk about the losing team.

  • Tanner

    i agree about the sports comment. it’s used as a term for being alert and ready, not defeated in any way.

  • I agree with the original post on sports contexts “Ears pinned back”.

    It’s used as a term for alert and ready, and never defeated in any way.

  • Hi, Do not forgot that have a dog ears pinned back is something commonly done with certain breeds.

  • nathan

    just heard this expression used in the LAD/PHI game, and this definition works perfectly for the context I heard it in.

  • a. pearson

    The phrase was used tonight in the context of the losing team being soundly defeated during a television broadcast of an 11-0 rout of the Phillies over the Dodgers. One announcer said to the other “What will [Dodgers Manager] Mr. Torre say to his team?” Response: “What can he say? They got their ears pinned back.”

  • J. Groves

    I’ve never heard it in the context of being defeated as in the baseball example. I’m only familiar with it in the context of “pinning your ears back” to accomplish a goal at all cost, ie. the defensive lineman example in the discussion.

    Due to that I always took it rather literally, as in, you would physically pin your ears back (or someone else would) so that they don’t get in the way or your effort. I assumed this was a reference to the animal world, and dog-fighting in particular. Which makes it slightly politically incorrect in my opinion.

    Now, if the baseball announcer would have said, “What can he say? They got their ears boxed.” I would have understood very clearly his point. In this context however, I’m confused by his comment. Or perhaps he’s confused more than I.

  • John

    I have heard this saying before and it really is debatable whether or not it is an outdated thing to say.

  • Thomas

    I think this post is 180 degrees off mark. I have Australian cattle dogs that drive cattle. The dogs weigh about 50 pounds, the cattle range in weight from 450 to 2000 pounds.
    Sometimes a steer will charge, stomp and kick at my dogs, rather than be submit. When that happens, the dogs do in fact pin their ears back and move in low to get the job done. The pinned ears suggest tenacity.
    A dog that isn’t up to the job just backs away, perks up his ears and barks. And yes, the bark is alwasy worse than the bite on a stock dog that isn’t up for the job.

  • David Prince

    In Australia, at least in my area, ‘to pin your ears back’ means to have a big night or to put in a great effort in something. In my opinion it is like horse racing where they put their ears back in effort.

  • Bad Wolf

    Just because NFL sports casters use a phrase doesn’t mean they are using it correctly.

    However, that being said, it is often the case that a phrase changes meaning over time, or has multiple meanings depending on context.

    “Dude” for example is commonly used today to refer to a friend or buddy, but originally it was an insult.

    In reference to the original post, I remember an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he threatened someone by saying “I’ll pin your ears back” lol

    It seems there is a difference in meaning depending on who is doing the pinning. If you get your ears pinned back by someone else, that’s a bad thing. But to pin your own ears back is good.

  • Watching U

    The term is commonly misused by sportscasters in the United States, as in, “Lackluster play by the offensive line will allow the opposing linebackers to pin their ears back and come after the quarterback.”

    As described above, having your ears pinned back means someone got the better of you. When sportscasters use the term as in the quote above, they are saying the opposite of what they mean. I cringe everytime I hear it or read it, which is often.

    What they should instead say is “…lay their ears back,” as in what wolves and other animals do when they assume an aggressive posture just prior to going on the attack.

    The concept of pinning one’s ears back is so misused in the U.S. that I’m amazed at how it seems no one in the sports journalism profession can figure out how stupid they’re making themselves sound.

  • cindy

    My granny (who was of Scotch-Irish descent)used to say of my reluctance to do an unpleasant task, “Just back your ears ‘n’ do it,” meaning as the above mentioned sheepdog…get tenacious, get stubborn, get aggressive, and get the job done. This is different from “getting your ears pinned, which means “Open up your ears and listen!” Perhaps y’all are confusing the two sayings.

  • nancy

    I’ve sometimes wondered if the fact that the outer visible portion of the ear is anatomically the auricle, or pinna, might have anything to do with it. Somehow pinna / pinning got garbled, y’think?

  • Harriett Lambe

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  • James VB

    Term comes from a dog fighting. When a dog goes to attack it pins it’s ears back. Means to get real and get ready to battle and fight.

  • Gord M

    I don’t know why there’s any debate on this subject. To pin one’s ears back means you overwhelm them. This expression hasn’t changed meaning in more than 100 years. Coaches have always said, “get out there and pin their ears back!”

  • James

    There are 2 very different meanings to the phrase in sports, as others have noted here. It is often used to describe defensive linemen aggressively rushing the passer. “Our boys really need to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback this week.”

    I am certain that this now-popular use of the phrase originated as an error from some football announcer who didn’t understand the original phrase. But everyone likes the way it sounds, so the new usage is here to stay.

  • I would add that in the NFL context the idea is not simply that defensive linemen are aggressive in rushing the passer; it’s that they can now focus exclusively on rushing the passer because the run has been taken out of the equation (possibly because their team has a big lead, or it’s 3rd and long).

    I think this usage originates from horse-racing, where it is closer to being literal – horses are said to “pin their ears back” when they move them in a certain way, which ordinarily would be a sign of anger but is also typical of extreme effort in the closing stages of a race.

  • John Murray

    All the answers given at the beginning of this blog are OK. But, some are a little out of place. One must always consider the context. It’s an old saying and not always applicabe in today’s lexicon. I can see the it as an exhibit of energy and determination but mostly in rural areas as applicable to animals. I see it in my dog who looks at me after being scolded with his ears pinned back. I can remember my father telling me he would pin my ears back as if to put the fear of God into me. For TV commentators in the NFL and other seettings, I find it’s use a bit forced or awkward.

  • valli

    I’ve heard this phrase used to mean both “get ready to fight” and to “be defeated/scolded” and I’ve always wondered which is supposed to be the correct meaning. Thankfully, it’s usually easy to interrupt someone’s intent when it’s used in context. For the most part, I hear it most often used to mean “get ready [for a challenge/fight]”. For example, last night I was watching an old Carole Lombard film from 1936 (Love Before Breakfast) and in one scene, a young man spots the beautiful Lombard in a bar. His friends bet him $10 if he could manage to successfully chat her up. As he’s getting up and straightening up his appearance, one of them says to him “Better pin back your ears.” So if the phrase has indeed been corrupted from its alleged original meaning of “to be defeated,” then it seems to have happened quite a long time ago…

  • MJ

    When it applies to football it is in respect to the defense coming after the qq as quickly as possible so to pin ones ears back would mean you being aggressive as possible with one goal in mind. Also, in respect to the football realm, pinning ones ear back would limit drag and resistance and not slow you down in any way, trying to get to the qb as quickly as humanly possible. I’ve never heard it used in a negative way. Those who said it in a losing effort might have been trying to say that the losing team got their ears boxed, as in when a parent would box your ears as punishment.

  • lykarock

    As referenced in several posts the term originates from the animal world and certainly applies to getting focused on the job at hand and putting all your effort into getting it done. Take note of the ears of a good draft horse when it is required to move a heavy load, they will be laid back and the horse will be focused and determined to get the job done. Growing up on the farm doing manual labour jobs, when my dad thought I was slacking off he would say; “come on, get your ears back and get the job done”.

  • JB

    When I took a tour at historic Williamsburg in Virginia recently, the tour guide told us pinning someone’s ears back referred to the practice of putting people in the stocks to punish and humiliate them. The rest of the villagers would throw rotten food at the people, so their ears were nailed to the stocks so they couldn’t bend their heads down to shield their faces.

  • Tackling Dummy

    Dogs will “pin their ears back” when they’re ready to fight — it’s not solely an indication of submission. When a football defense comes at the quarterback “with their ears pinned back” it’s used in this sense.

  • Gwen Stevens

    When a horse runs hard, with great effort, they lay their ears back against their head. With people who know horses, “pin your ears back,” means to try hard.

  • Mel

    To pin the ears back is to put them in their former position by force. Thus, like the animal references, if one is advancing with
    Pricked ears, the phrase warns him or her off by stating the consequences.

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