English XP


10 English Idioms With Boxing Origins

Boxing is my favorite sport. I love the unrestrained effort required to combat an opponent sometimes twice one’s size and attempt to bring them down. While size and punching power generally prevail in boxing matches, boxing never fails to provide upsets every now and again. Little wonder there are many words and phrases derived from this marvelous sport.

Today we would be listing 10 common phrases in the English Language that originate from boxing. Hope you find them interesting enough to apply them to your daily conversations.


1)      Glass jaw:

Meaning: Susceptible to injury (In the case of a boxer a knockout punch) and in the case of a public figure—vulnerable to disparaging remarks.

Usage: Scott Morrison accused of ‘glass jaw’ over Ray Hadley interview he skipped

In this context, the politician is being accused of not wanting the interview because he feared he would be destructively criticised.  It is fair to say that to survive in the rough and tumble world of politics, you do not want to have a glass jaw.

2)      Work-out:

Meaning: To strenuously train or exercise physically.  

Usage: I will be competing in the CrossFit competition next month so I have to work out every other day.

This is probably the most used word that was borrowed from boxing. We use it everyday without realising its origin. Next time you are working out remember that the original workouts required punching bags and gloves.

3)      Take it on the chin:

Meaning: To suffer and accept misfortune or defeat courageously and with fortitude. In the literal sense this means taking a blow and the chin and not being daunted and continuing the fight.

Usage: Boris Johnson tells Brits to take it on the Chin

In this context, we have a prime minister telling his country to be brave about Covid and learn to live with it. He had to literally take it on the chin a couple of months later when he caught Covid himself. Speak of be careful what you wish for?

4)      Down and out:

Meaning: A person without a job, money, or prospects; Poverty stricken and destitute.

In boxing it generally means that a boxer has been knocked out, is unconscious and unable to continue the fight.

Usage: Down and out in Disneyland: study finds most LA workers can’t cover basic needs

In this context, the article is drawing attention to the irony of the fact that on one hand we have Disneyland, a place that can easily be described as a fantasy and on the other hand we have the staff unable to fend for themselves while serving customer’s needs. The irony, right?

5)      Pull one’s punches:

Meaning: To restrain oneself in criticism. (In boxing) To use less force or land less severe blows than one is capable of.

Usage: I have told Jim, that I would pull no punches in my assessment of his work because I think it will do him good in the long run.

As can be seen in the above sentence, the phrase can also be used negatively and mean to be liberal with one’s criticism.

6)    Saved by the bell:

Meaning: to be saved from misfortune or difficulty at the last moment by a timely interruption. (In boxing) It is used when a boxer is given a lifeline having been knocked down and only has the bell to thank for the continuation of the fight.

Usage: I was close to being robbed on Friday night, but I was saved by the bell thanks to some good Samaritans

This has a common usage, and it can be also be used iteratively as in “Save (one) by the bell” Have you ever been saved by the bell? Leave your experience in the comments below.

7)      Square off: 

Meaning: To assume a fighting or combative stance or attitude. This derives from the shape of the boxing ring which is a square.

Usage: I will be tuning in to tonight’s debate to watch the gubernatorial candidates square off against each other.

The range of which boxing phrases can be used is incredibly wide, and this just demonstrates that. Next time you are about to engage in a contest, feel free to use this term to describe your endeavor.

8)      Throw in the towel :

Meaning: To give up, surrender, admit defeat in one’s endeavor.

Usage: New Zealand won’t ‘throw in towel’ on Covid-zero strategy despite rising infections | New Zealand | The Guardian

In this context, the country is saying categorically that they would not give up in the face of daunting criticism.

9)    Low blow:

Meaning: A comment or tactic that is unscrupulous or unfair: In boxing) It is illegal to punch someone below the belt. Hence a low blow is penalized.

Usage: The usage of low blow insults on his family is disgraceful, even for Tom who is renowned for having no shame.

10)   On the ropes:

Meaning: In a state or near collapse or on the verge of defeat. (In boxing) This happens when the opponent is forced against the ropes and is forced to defend.

Usage: Having been on the ropes for the last one year, BP shares have come back swinging to new highs.

There are few things as great as a comeback story, so next time you are describing one you can spice it up by using this phrase borrowed from my favourite sport.

That’s your lot for today. If you liked this article, I have several other like it. From tongue twisters to guides on how you can improve your English Language fluency, I have also got articles on English culture you may find interesting. Check them out.


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, history and meaning of English words (etymonline.com)
  2. List of sports idioms – Wikipedia