On the Fence (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "On the Fence"?

The term "on the fence" means undecided. It is often seen the saying "to sit on the fence," which means to avoid picking one side or the other.
On the Fence (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • I'm not backing either candidate. I've decided to sit on the fence.
  • You cannot sit on the fence on this issue. You must decide.
  • She hasn't agreed or disagreed. She's still on the fence.
The idiom "to sit on the fence" originates from the image of literally sitting on a fence and not committing to one side or the other. Used entirely figuratively, this saying is common in the political arena to describe someone who refuses to back a particular party or motion. Such indecisiveness is usually a sign of neutrality or a lack of courage to commit. Either way, it stems from the desire to stay on good terms with both sides.

A quick look at Google's Ngram Viewer (which scans millions of published articles over the past two centuries) shows that the term was used, albeit rarely, in the early 18th century but did not become popular until around 1860. Also of note, the term was given a boost by the 1884 US election, when a group of Republicans (given the derogatory name "Mugwumps") supported the Democratic candidate. The group was described by their opponents "as birds sitting on a fence" with their "mugs" on one side and their "wumps" on the other.

Previous and Next Sayings

Test Your Knowledge of English Proverbs and Idioms

Ready for the Test?

More Proverbs, Sayings, and Idioms

Help Us Improve Grammar Monster

  • Do you disagree with something on this page?
  • Did you spot a typo?

Find Us Quicker!

  • When using a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing), you will find Grammar Monster quicker if you add #gm to your search term.
Next lesson >

See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

Page URL