turn tail

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turn tail (third-person singular simple present turns tail, present participle turning tail, simple past and past participle turned tail)

  1. (idiomatic) To turn away from someone or something, in preparation for running away; to reverse direction; to leave or flee.
    • 1838, Charles Dickens, "Some Particulars Concerning A Lion" in Mudfog and Other Sketches:
      A box-lobby lion or a Regent-street animal . . . will never bite, and, if you offer to attack him manfully, will fairly turn tail and sneak off.
    • 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson, chapter 21, in Kidnapped:
      [H]e stormed at me all through the lessons in a very violent manner of scolding . . . . I was often tempted to turn tail, but held my ground for all that.
    • 1911, Jack London, chapter 15, in The Cruise of the Snark:
      At last, in despair, we turned tail, ran out to sea, and sailed clear round Bassakanna.
    • 1945 April 3, Bruce Rae, "Okinawa: The Marines Have Landed," New York Times, p. 1:
      Five of the enemy planes were shot down and the remainder turned tail.
    • 2011 April 27, Vivienne Walt, "Have Fuel, Will Fight," Time:
      The men blew up two oil pipelines in eastern Libya near the rebel-held Sarir fields, before turning tail and speeding back west.

Usage notes[edit]