poke the bear

P

poke the bear

Meaning

  • to intentionally provoke or instigate a confrontation with someone who is known to be easily angered or irritated.
  • knowingly taking a risk or stirring up trouble by engaging in actions or behaviors that are likely to cause negative reactions.
  • to intentionally irritating or challenging a powerful or influential person, organization, or system, often with potential negative consequences.

Example Sentences

  1. Criticizing the boss’s decisions is a sure way to poke the bear at work.
  2. Diplomacy is crucial; let’s not poke the bear during the negotiations.
  3. Bringing up politics at the dinner table can easily poke the bear.
  4. Suggesting changes to longstanding traditions tends to poke the bear of resistance.

Origin

The exact origin of the phrase remains somewhat elusive. Likely it finds its roots from the imagery of an individual intentionally approaching a bear and poking it, provoking its negative reaction resulting in a dangerous situation.

“Poking the bear” encompasses both a literal and figurative connotation. The literal meaning is underscored by a compelling historical short story, published in the Chicago Eagle Newspaper on April 8, 1893.

The narrative unfolds in San Francisco and revolves around a citizen who suffered severe injuries when struck on the head by a bear’s paw. This incident occurred as a consequence of the individual provocatively poking the bear with a short stick.

“Poke the bear” gained popularity in the latter half of the 1900s, particularly during the Cold War era. The expression was often used in reference to Russia, symbolized as the bear, during this time. It became more widely recognized and has since continued to be used in various contexts beyond the Cold War period.

Bears are powerful and fairly gentle creatures, but may be potentially dangerous when they feel threatened or provoked. As a figurative phrase, the bear stands for any person or organization powerful to influence or react if bothered or poked.

In essence, “poking the bear” signifies taking a risk by deliberately agitating someone or something that holds significant power or influence that is best left undisturbed, often with the aim of eliciting a reaction, challenging authority, or testing one’s own capabilities.

This idiom serves as a metaphorical warning to individuals to exercise prudence and restraint in their interactions to avoid unnecessary conflicts or perilous outcomes. It emphasizes the delicate balance between asserting oneself and recognizing the potential dangers inherent in needlessly disturbing powerful entities.

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