have the wolf by the ear

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Initially attributed to Roman Emperor Tiberius circa year 1 AD by biographer C. Suetonius Tranquillus.[1]

United States, 1820, Thomas Jefferson, writing about the institution of slavery and the Missouri Compromise:[2]

"But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
— Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), Monticello, 22 April 1820[1]


  • (file)


have the wolf by the ear (third-person singular simple present has the wolf by the ear, present participle having the wolf by the ear, simple past and past participle had the wolf by the ear)

  1. (idiomatic) To be in a dangerous situation from which one cannot disengage, but in which one cannot safely remain.
    Synonyms: on the horns of a dilemma, have a tiger by the tail; see also Thesaurus:dilemma, Thesaurus:difficult situation

Usage notes[edit]

Original form is “have the wolf by the ear”; common variants are “hold” rather than “have”, “a wolf” rather than “the wolf”, and plural “ears” rather than singular “ear”.