Stepping on Toes Meaning
Definition: To upset someone by invading their personal or professional responsibilities or affairs.
What Does Step On Your Toes Mean?
Imagine that you are a guest at a friend’s home. Your friend is cooking dinner for you. Imagine that this friend is very particular about his kitchen, and doesn’t like anyone else to cook.
However, you see that he hasn’t added enough salt to his soup. You decide to help out, so you enter his kitchen and put a pinch of salt into the pot. While doing so, you accidentally get too close to him and step on his toes. He gets upset because you came into his kitchen without his permission, changed his recipe, and on top of everything hurt his feet.
This image can help you remember that the figurative meaning is slightly related to the literal meaning. Usually you only step on someone’s toes literally if you are already in that person’s space. The figurative meaning is the same. But instead of being in that person’s physical space, you are intruding in some other manner.
This is a common expression in the workplace. Many co-workers will only do the duties in their job descriptions and avoid all other responsibilities. This is because those other responsibilities belong to other co-workers. If the first co-worker tries to take over the duties of the second co-worker, that second co-worker might think his or her job is in jeopardy.
Origin of Stepping on Someone’s Toes
The exact origin of the phrase isn’t known, but early sources of it are seen in the mid-1800s. One such early citation is in Anthony Trollope’s 1866 The Belton Estate:
- But you mustn’t offer my father.—I won’t tread on his toes.
Tread here has the same meaning as step.
Here is an example of two family members using the expression while at home.
Grandmother: Listen, your mother asked me not to talk to you about this, but I must do it anyway. You seem depressed. Please let me know if I can do anything to help.
Granddaughter: Why didn’t Mom want you to talk to me about that?
Grandmother: Well, she told me that she was your mother and that she could take good care of you. I don’t want to step on her toes by trying to take care of you, but I also can’t sit back and not say anything.
The second dialogue shows a father and his daughter discussing a problem the daughter is having at school.
Daughter: I need some advice about a school project. The teacher assigned me a partner who isn’t doing any work. I don’t want to step on her toes by completing her half of the project, but I also don’t want to fail the project.
Father: That’s a tricky situation.
This excerpt is from an article about painting rappers in the style of portraits of English nobility.
- “I didn’t want to step on his toes, but I guess part of me felt it was still OK. … My style of painting was based off 1700s paintings of how aristocracy was represented here [in the United Kingdom], and it’s quite a niche thing to represent grime in that way.” –LA Times
This excerpt is from an article about professional football players.
- “They were talking about their team concept and the wide receivers and Donald Driver,” Moss said. “It was like they were telling me they were going to take a chance on me but if you do come here you have to watch out and be on your best behavior and Donald Driver is the top receiver and don’t step on his toes.” –Chicago Sun Times
The idiom to step on someone’s toes means to anger or offend someone by encroaching on their duties or other matters.