draw horns on someone

Moon Palace

Senior Member
Hello everyone,
I have encountered this phrase in a sentence from the Economist, and I am having trouble understanding it.

They have little to go on besides the two men’s characters and life histories, which means that each side has every incentive to draw horns on the other guy’s portrait.

What does 'to draw horns on the other guy's portrait' mean? Does it mean they are eager to battle it out and point to each other's defect?

Thanks in advance for your help.
  • Moon Palace

    Senior Member
    Thank you, cyberpedant. It makes much more sense indeed. I had gotten confused owing to the other phrase 'draw in one's horns', which means a very different thing. And this blurred my understanding, when in fact it was easy... Too bad.:eek:


    Senior Member
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    To place horns on someone can also mean to portray him as a "cuckold," someone whose wife has been unfaithful. But that doesn't seem to be the case here.


    Senior Member

    Moon Palace

    Senior Member
    In most contexts, or without context, I would firmly agree with this. However, in the article in question,
    http://www.economist.com/opinion/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=12001775 , it seems more towards 'ridicule' or 'mock'. I get a mental image of someone defacing a copy of the Mona Lisa, adding horns, and perhaps a moustache. This is, after all,
    about presidential politics. :rolleyes:
    Thank you, Cuchu. :) It is indeed about presidential politics, yet wouldn't you say the phrase is pointedly ambiguous enough to leave room for a wide array of jabs, which can range from some nice teasing remark or gentle criticism to punchier quips or even the nasty ads one may see?


    Senior Member
    US (Midwest) - English
    Yes, the phrase "draw horns on the other guy's portrait' allows for a wide array of jabs. I perceive that the Economist writer was also making an implicit reference to the silliness of the political 'debate.'

    Drawing horns on someone's picture is pointless vandalism that is obviously untrue and is either humorous or simply mean-spirited. It is mostly done by children and by people who can only insult rather than debate or thoughtfully criticize.


    Senior Member
    English (British)
    I agree that the surface meaning is to draw (with a pen) devil-like horns on the opponent's photo.

    But I think it very likely that when the writer chose this phrasing s/he was well aware of the association of ideas with the two contestants/combatants locking horns (=doing battle).


    Senior Member
    USA - English
    I disagree, Waylink. In order to lock horns with something else, one has to have horns of one's own. This comment in no way suggests that people are creating horns for themselves, or that they regard themselves to be of the same sort as their opponents.


    Ireland, English
    "To draw horns on someone" is an interesting use of imagery and a clever turn of phrase; it makes the reader think about what is meant in visual terms. You visualise someone sketching in horns on a photo, so in a subtle way it also pokes fun at the childishness of the act and how in fact the horns (ill-deeds, evilness) are not really there. Also, as it conjures an image of a devil in an oblique way, it lessens the impact.

    To "portray as a devil" as suggested by cyberpedant is a good interpretation.

    To "demonise" someone is another appropriate adaptation and is frequently used in a political context.

    To "lock horns" is a metaphoric term for to "have an argument" and is definitely not what is meant here.
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