whose ox is being gored

Discussion in 'English Only' started by GodFatherQsubs, Dec 8, 2011.

  1. GodFatherQsubs Senior Member


    Couldn't find any "formal" definition of that idiom.

    My situation is that Person A, who is about to be indicted, hears about one of the witnesses against him, which had a child with the A's former lover. The lawyer of A says: "Let's not have the jury even wondering whose ox is being gored there".

    Can someone please explain?

    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 8, 2011
  2. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    This is not very familiar to me - I've only seen it once or twice and in recent years. I would have thought it was some kind of Biblical reference. The basic idea is: if it's my ox, I care. If it's someone else's, I don't care. I suppose in the court case it means something like: Let's not decide whether it's A or the witness/lover who suffered more. Anyway, here's what the OED says about it:

    Chiefly U.S. [Apparently in allusion to a response given by Martin Luther (1483–1546) at the Diet of Worms (1521).] In collocation with gored. An interest that is threatened or harmed. Chiefly in whose ox is gored.

    (Note the spelling is whose, not who's.) They give a few quotations, including:

    It makes a difference whose ox is gored, it seems.
    He was widely known as a dare-devil who carried out his intentions without caring whose ox was gored.
  3. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    First of all, it's "whose" not 'who's' which is a contraction for "who is"

    And, it's not an idiom, it's a metaphor, and each of the words means exactly what the dictionary says.

    Finally, are you asking for a reference to a "formal definition," or are you saying you cannot picture the metaphor and need to know what it means? (Google provides a massive amount of help there)

    Edit: The metaphor is very common in American English.
  4. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    (Moderator note: Title edited:))
  5. GodFatherQsubs Senior Member

    I still can't seem to get my head around to translating it. How would you rephrase it in other words and keep the meaning?
  6. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Do you know what an ox is?
    Do you know what it means for one animal with horns to gore another?
    Suppose you owned an ox and your neighbor owned another. The oxen fight each other, and one ox gores the other. Can you understand that the person who owned the winning, uninjured ox and the person who owned the losing, injured ox would have different feelings about what just happened?
  7. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Wow, SDG - you find this to be a common phrase? I've never heard it before in my life (and I'm a pretty well-read and well-traveled guy, or at least I thought so)!

    For the original poster, the phrasing is indeed really convoluted. You might paraphrase this as "Let's try to keep the jury from even beginning to wonder about whose trauma is deeper/whose pain is more acute/who's the real tragic figure here."
  8. GodFatherQsubs Senior Member

    Thanks all, I think I got it :)
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    I certainly do; I would have called it a standard figure of speech.

    A Google search for the phrase "whose ox" returns more than 400,000 hits, almost all of which are uses of variants of this expression.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2011
  10. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Well, to be honest, I was mystified here, too - I've never come across "whose ox is being gored":(. Does everyone agree that it means, as lucas suggests, who is suffering most pain/most detriment? and that it's a common expression in AmE? (I see that lucas hasn't come across it....)
  11. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Never heard it in my life:)
  12. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Nor have I (just in case that wasn't clear from my previous post:D....)
  13. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Oh, I only meant to say that in this context my paraphrase was "who is suffering the most."

    And I have never, to my knowledge, heard this expression. It's kindof memorable, though, so I think I would have noticed it had I heard it!
  14. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I suspect, Loob, that the application may be a little wider than this, in the way the figure is applied in political and economic life. I'd tentatively suggest it is often used to imply that the views which people take are determined by how a policy affects them personally. Thus it's often an implied reproach that someone else in an argument is not taking the interests of the wider community into account in the point he or she is pressing. It's a way of belittling one's opponent in argument by suggesting that they are motivated mainly by self-interest.
  15. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    "It depends on whose ox is being gored," was certainly common parlance in my parent's home, and has continued to be so in mine (I'm 68.). I actually arrived here by searching for the phrase so I could give a give a concise definition in another forum. (I'm now an hour into that research, including time for registering and setting up my WR.C account.)

    My own feeling is that it is not relative, but absolute. It is not whether one person is being hurt more or less than another, but in which direction a single injury is directed. Ox-goring is usually a single incident, not a prolonged affray in which the oxen in question suffer different amounts of injury.

    Frankly, I think the lawyer in the original post was using the phrase incorrectly, or at least incompletely. It should be used to indicate that someone is behaving hypocritically - expecting to be treated differently than another who has suffered the same injury. The lawyer seems to be suggesting that the witness may be taking vengeance upon A. It's a reasonable use of "ox being gored" but leaves out the critical "depends" which makes the phrase a familiar one.
  16. Fabulist Banned

    Annandale, Virginia, USA
    American English
    Since it is not something that I associate with specifically American phenomena, from the 18th and 19th century settlement of the eastern forests, or from cattle ranching on the Great Plains, say, I am surprised that "whose ox is gored" is not as familiar a metaphor in British English as it is in American. It looks like something the earliest English migrants to North America would have brought with them. I understand that oxen aren't used very much as prime movers on British farms anymore, but they aren't on American farms, either, and we have many other stock phrases that originated in everyday experiences but that are now rather arbitrary. I wonder whether the metaphor was invented in the U.S., or was imported but then somehow died out in its country of origin.
  17. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Well, it's hard to be sure, of course. Given that the OED says (see etb's post 2) that it's apparently an allusion to something said by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, it could be either. On the other hand, google ngram viewer shows 'zero' for BrE examples of whose ox is/was [being] gored, whereas it indicates 'lots' for AmE examples (eg here). So it looks as though it may well have been "home-grown" in the US:).

    PS. Welcome to the forums, pwmeek!
  18. languageGuy Senior Member

    Kansas City, MO
    USA and English
    I read this and immediately took it a different way. I thought it was a pun, the 'goring' symbolizing having sex.
  19. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    Thanks; looks like my kind of place. My sig in several other forums is Sesquipedalian Man. I think that might be presumptuous in this forum.
  20. Caldog New Member

    This idiom may have origins in the world of Judaism. Exodus 21.35 refers to the remedies when one's ox gores his neighbor's ox. Subsequent Talmudic and later rabbinical commentaries on this verse discussed what remedies were owed when the goring ox's owner is Jewish, and the gored ox's owner is Gentile, and vice versa. Some argued that the Jew owed the Gentile nothing, others that the Exodus 21:35 remedies applied evenly no matter whose ox is gored. The confusion as to the meaning of the idiom may be due to the fact that people generally are not as familiar with the Bible as previous generations.

    Reference: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma 38a.

  21. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    The rules about ox goring were established centuries before biblical scrolls appeared and were enshrined in the Code of Hammurabi:
  22. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    It seems likely that the Biblical scripture is our source of the idiom.
  23. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    ...particularly as (depending on which talmudic scholar your believe) it depends on whose ox is being gored (a Jew's or a Gentile's). If an offense is treated differently (or is expected to be treated differently) because of the nature of the offended person rather than the nature of the offense you have this dependency.

    Note: These days the difference in nature is generally whether the identity of the offended person is one's self or anybody else. (A pale, diluted interpretation in my opinion, but generally how it was used in my family.)
  24. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    Like others, I had not met this endearingly bucolic expression before. You can see how it could have arisen in the cow-punching, bible-punching culture of the West. I understand it as equivalent to 'it depends who's on the receiving end'.
  25. MikeTheTiger New Member

    "Who's Ox is gored", or "Who's Ox gets gored" is a phrase often heard in the South. It refers to the idea that if someone must win then someone else must lose. For example: Today both the Federal government and State Governments fund hundreds of thousands of programs i.e. food stamps, welfare, Social Security, programs for the handi-capped, farm subsidies, National Defense, Education and the list goes on and on and on. However, most States are running a deficit at this time and our Federal Government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar they spend - right now a 17 Trillion dollar deficit. When we all finally wake up to the fact that we can't continue to run these deficits, then programs will have to be cut. The big question is which programs will "have their Ox gored"? i.e who's programs will be cut?
  26. Rendered New Member

    English - Nigeria
    Whose Ox is gored is a classic idiomatic expression often made to depict the ignorance of people who don't care about a situation if it doesn't affect them directly.

    An example:

    Albert: Hey Sheriff, the rioters are looting the shops and causing chaos.
    Sheriff: Oh really, what part of town are they doing this?
    Albert: In the south.
    Sheriff: Well my wife and family live in the north part of town
    Albert: But you are the Sheriff, please stop this menace, many casualties have been reported so far.
    Sheriff: Well my family is safe. I don't care.

    Two hours later,

    Albert: The rioters are now in the northern part of town
    Sheriff: Oh no, quick! dispatch the troops! get my family out of there alive and kill anything that stands in your way.
    Albert: But there are innocent people in the town too, not all of them are rioters
    Sheriff: So? Let them die like nature intended, as long as my family makes it out alive.
    Albert: The others have families too Sheriff?
    Sheriff: I don't care WHOSE OX IS GORED?
  27. Hermione Golightly

    Hermione Golightly Senior Member

    British English
    Sounds like the 'NIMBY' attitude, 'Not In My Back Yard'.
    I've never heard it before and I'm never 'the only one'.

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