What Does Long Pole in the Tent Mean?

The Long Pole in the Tent Meaning

Definition: 1) The part of a task that will take the longest amount of time to complete; 2) the most critical part of a task.

Origin of Long Pole in the Tent

Some sources say this term comes from engineering or aviation. However, it the exact relationship between tents and aviation is unclear. Most sources also say that the metaphorical meaning of this idiom is related to its literal meaning.

The long pole in a tent will determine the height of the tent, just as the longest, most time consuming, part of a project will determine the length of a project.

Likewise, the long pole in a tent usually is in the center, and bears most of the weight, making it the most important. Therefore, the long pole in the tent in the metaphorical sense can also be the most important.

Both meanings exist, although the meaning related to delays is more common.

Examples of Long Pole in the Tent

define long pole in the tent The dialogue below shows two women planning a fundraiser for children with disabilities.

Mila: Betty, there is so much to do to make sure we have everything ready on time. Are you sure we can handle all of this?

Betty: Of course. We just have to make sure to manage our time effectively.

Mila: How do you suggest we do that?

Betty: Well, calling and getting big corporate sponsors is the long pole in the tent. That will take the most time, by far. Therefore, we should make sure not to get behind schedule on that front.

This dialogue shows a couple of roommates talkinglong pole meaning about spring-cleaning.

John: Amanda, we need to talk about how we are going to split up the chores. If we want to have the whole house cleaned and ready for our house party next weekend, we have a lot to do.

Amanda: Okay. I’ll dust and you can do the dishes.

John: That’s fine, but the long pole in the tent is cleaning out all the junk from the basement. If we don’t finish that, there will be no room for our guests.

More Examples

This excerpt explains the origin of the expression in an article about President George W. Bush and nuclear weapons.

  • The long tent pole is an aviation term, with engineering origins. Fred Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” finds a use of the phrase in a 1970 technical review by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. “The phrase is not in quotation marks, suggesting it had already become a term that would be known to their readers,” says Shapiro, adding that the meaning seems to be “the thing that must be dealt with first or most crucially for a larger project to be successful.” –New York Times

The second excerpt is about economic leaders for a community.

  • We are the long pole in the tent and that’s an enormous responsibility, and we want to continue to provide good jobs and to drive that economic activity and to make it bigger. –Williamsburg Yorktown Daily


The phrase long pole in the tent means the longest or most important part of a project.