What Does Against the Grain Mean?

Against the Grain Meaning

Definition: To do something differently from the standard way most people do it.

This idiom means to do things one’s own way, going against the normal rules or expectations for how that thing is usually done.

Origin of Against the Grain

It is commonly believed that this expression developed from the grain in wood. In this instance, grain refers to the fibers of wood and the direction in which they lie.

When carpenters wish to cut wood, they can do this most easily by cutting along the grain. It is possible to cut against the grain, but it is more difficult and less common.

Although this idiom may have been used previously, most sources cite Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus from 1607. The idiom appears in the passage below,

Say, you chose him

More after our commandment than as guided

By your own true affections, and that your minds,

Preoccupied with what you rather must do

Than what you should, made you against the grain

To voice him consul: lay the fault on us.

Examples of Against the Grain

going against the grainThis idiom can be used with either positive or negative connotations.

Here is an example of the idiom being used by two college students discussing music,

Regina: It’s Valentine’s day. Why aren’t you wearing pink?

Ginny: I just didn’t feel like it.

Regina: But everyone wears pink today. It’s a holiday!

Ginny: I guess I just like to go against the grain.

against the grain meaningIn this example, two friends discuss an upcoming party. Here the idiom is used to mean going against the normal rules of polite behavior,

Kevin: I can’t believe Amy didn’t invite me to her wedding.

Steve: Yeah, man, I’m sorry to hear that. It probably wasn’t intentional, you know. She probably just forgot.

Kevin: You’re right! I should just show up.

Steve: I don’t know about that.

Kevin: Why shouldn’t I? It’s not illegal.

Steve: No, but it’s certainly against the grain. Why don’t you just let me text her to see if she forgot?

Kevin: All right, fine.

More Examples

In the example below, the idiom incorporates the adjective “modernist” to demonstrate exactly what the grain went against.

  • The next work he made, “Aureole,” also from 1962, was the first one that made Mr. Taylor a big choreographic name and audience hit. This responded to its Handel music with a lyrical happiness that went against the modernist grain of American modern dance at that time; and its musical danciness has characterized much of Mr. Taylor’s style ever since. –The New York Times

In this second example, the expression is used to show that efforts to protect the environment go against what the Republican political party commonly believes is best.

  • The EPA, founded by President Richard M. Nixon, has been a target of Republican ire for some time for two reasons. First, its mandate is to assure compliance with environmental regulations, which are often unappreciated by businesses. Second, its newly robust efforts on climate change run against the grain of party orthodoxy. –The Washington Post


The phrase against the grain means doing the opposite of what others are doing, or of what others expect you to do.