Left Holding the Bag

When you’re “left holding the bag,” is it empty or full?

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

You may know that the expression to leave someone holding the bag is negative. It means to abandon people; to force responsibility or blame onto them.

But you might think that’s because the bag is full.

For example, imagine that you and your friends are cat burglars, and you just stole a bunch of jewels. Suddenly, you hear sirens. Your friends take off, leaving you behind. When the police arrive, you’re left holding the bag—full of jewels—and clearly guilty.

Makes sense, right?

Buy Now

Unfortunately, that’s not how the phrase got its meaning. Instead, this idiom grew out of an earlier expression from about 1600: to give one the bag. That expression referred to someone being left with an empty bag after everyone else removed the good stuff.  

Empty or full, this expression has never fallen out of style.

An 1897 weekly used the term when writing about Kansas farmers deceived by a “rain-maker.” The farmers paid $500—about $12,000 today—for him to produce a downpour. A tabernacle was built. The performance was held. The rain didn’t fall.

“The parties who put up the cash were left holding the bag,” according to the weekly.

A 2015 article in the Washington Post uses the same phrase. This time, it’s Virginia taxpayers who were “left holding the bag.” The state paid a private company millions to build a 55-mile toll road. Because the state lacked federal construction permits, the road was never built.

Sounds like Virginia is definitely holding an empty bag.

So that’s your tidbit for today: If you leave someone holding the bag, you desert them and burden them with an unwelcome responsibility.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Ammer, Christine. Leave holding the bag. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Ayto, John. Holding. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010. 

Image courtesty of Shutterstock


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.