What Does Hoisted by His Own Petard Mean?

Hoisted by His Own Petard Meaning

Definition: To hurt oneself with an object meant to hurt someone else; caught in one’s own trap.

A petard is a device similar to a small bomb that people used in the past. They used it to break down doors, walls, or other barriers in wars.

Hoist means to raise.

Origin of Hoisted by His Own Petard

It was common for militaries to use petards in the 1500s, and this ancient weapon was dangerous to those operating it.

In order to breach a gate or wall during times of battle, armies would use a petard. A petard is a small bomb made of metal or wood filled with gunpowder that is fastened to the gate or wall the army is trying to breach.

The bomb, of course, must be detonated, and before the time of remote detonators, someone had to do it by hand. The detonator could easily blow himself up (hoist) trying to ignite the petard. Thus, someone was hoisted by his own petard.

The English playwright William Shakespeare first used this expression in the year 1602, in his play Hamlet.

  • Let it work; for ‘tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petar.

Other variations of this phrase are hoisted on his own petard, hoist by his own petard, hoist with his own petard, hoist on his own petard, hoisted with his own petard.

In America, hoisted by his own petard is the most common form, although the preposition with more closely resembles the original phrase.

Examples

hoist by his own petard definitionThe first dialogue shows a brother and sister discussing their day at school.

Luke: So how was your day today?

Ella:  It was okay. Not much exciting happened. The only thing that was sort of funny was that a bully tried to knock my books out of my hands.

Luke: Did it work?

Ella: No, actually. He didn’t realize that I always walk around with a tight grip on my books. It’s just my natural way of holding things. So he came up and slapped my books as hard as he could, expecting them to fall out of my hand easily. What actually happened was that he injured his hand.

Luke: Ha! Hoisted by his own petard!

Ella: I guess so. That’s what he deserves.

meaning of hoisted on his own petardThe second example shows two friends talking about something that happened while they were having a picnic.

Ray: Do you remember that time we were having a picnic on campus a few years ago?

Ricardo: Maybe not. What happened?

Ray: Well, it was a beautiful day, so we decided to go eat outside, and some jerks got water balloons to throw at us.

Ricardo: Oh yeah. I remember now. They tried to throw them at us but they accidentally popped the balloons in their own hands and got themselves totally soaked. Hoisted by their own petard!

More Examples

This article excerpt is about a politician who caused a huge scandal about himself.

  • With Weiner hoisted by his own petard and his tawdry tale heading for the back burner, Democratic leaders hoped to resume sounding the alarm about the Republican agenda. –New York Daily News

This is another example of a politician who caused problems for himself.

  • Stealing a page from the Fortas fight, the Democrats raked Haynsworth for financial improprieties. Nixon squealed about the “vicious character assassination” that Haynsworth underwent, but the president was being hoisted by his own petard. –Smithsonian

Summary

The expression hoisted by one’s own petard is a way to say that someone tried to injure another person but only succeeded in injuring himself or herself with their own weapon (or other means of injury).

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