Tug Of War – Meaning, Origin


1. A tug of war is a rope pulling contest between two teams. Each team positions themselves at opposite ends of the rope and then, when it starts, they all start pulling their end to see which team is stronger.
2. A tug of war can mean a back and forth battle for power or authority.

Synonyms / Similar Phrases:

The Origin Of ‘Tug Of War’

Tug of war is a strength based game that pits two teams against each other in what is essentially a pulling contest. Before the game begins, both teams line up in a row; one team is positioned on the left, the other on the right. They both grab onto a single rope and when the game starts, everyone starts pulling with all their might. The goal is to out-muscle the opposing team.

The origin of this game is not clear. Apparently, there are old Egyptian paintings that depict some sort of tug of war game that was played back then. However, unlike today’s game, there does not seem to be any rope involved. Instead, the players in the front rows hold hands and start pulling back.

Anyway, the earliest I could find the phrase in print is in Ovid’s Tristia from 1713, but it doesn’t look like it references the game:

“His Nerves could all the Tug of War sustain,

My brittle Limbs submit to Toil and Pain.”

The earliest I could find the expression referencing the game comes from London Week News, 1875:

“Ever since the new game of the Tug of War was introduced at Woolwich last year by the 93rd (Sutherland) Highlanders, who were then defeated by the 14th Brigade, Royal Artillery, the various corps in garrison have been training or practising more or less for the event of this year . . .

Each team consisted of a dozen men, and the two opposing parties manned either end of a long stout rope, the object in view being to drag their opponents over a line drawn across the centre.”

Example Sentence(s)

  • Trying to teach my children to clean up after themselves has been a constant tug of war.

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