Thrown to the Wolves – Meaning, Origin and Usage

People sometimes sacrifice innocents to benefit the group or to save themselves. You can use the idiom “thrown to the wolves” to describe the fate these victims suffer.

This post unpacks the idiom’s fascinating history and shows how “thrown to the wolves” differs from seemingly similar expressions.


The primarily American idiom “to throw [someone] to the wolves” means sacrificing someone for your own benefit or that of others.

The sacrifice in question does not have to be the person’s life. It may also be their job, pride, or social standing, for example. You may throw someone to the wolves for the greater good or selfish reasons.

Being “thrown to the wolves” has a strong negative connotation. Someone who uses this phrase typically does so to express disagreement with or even disgust for the decision to sacrifice someone.

Example Usage

Getting a feel for the context in which an idiom is used helps you understand its meaning better. Take a look at these sentences that include the expression “thrown to the wolves”:

  • “My nerdy little sister has been looking forward to my birthday party all year, but I’m afraid my new friends from the debate club won’t respect me if she comes. I might have to throw her to the wolves.”
  • “Joanna has worked harder than anyone, and you want to fire her because that high-profile client doesn’t like her? Throwing people to the wolves like that isn’t OK.”
  • “The CEO always emphasizes that mistakes are the only path toward growth and innovation, but he wasn’t afraid to throw the under-performing Michigan team to the wolves when it suited him.”


The idiom “to throw [someone] to the wolves” emerged in the United States in the 19th century or perhaps slightly earlier.

The saying refers to the older Russian proverb “to lighten the sleigh,” which refers to the same concept.

“Throwing someone to the wolves” comes from old Russian tales of hungry packs of enraged wolves attacking groups of people traveling in horse-drawn sleighs.

These wolves don’t stop until they get the meal they are after, or so the stories go. Travelers were rumored to solve this problem by pushing one or more of the passengers out of the sleigh. Then, the wolf pack would stop to devour the innocent victim, allowing the rest of the group to get away.

The unfortunate victims of this act were usually babies, children, or brides and grooms in the stories.

A group may decide to sacrifice someone by “throwing them to the wolves” to give everyone else better odds of survival. People may also make this decision for entirely selfish reasons, valuing their own lives more than another person’s.

Phrases Similar to Thrown to the Wolves

Lots of similar-sounding idioms exist in English, but some with different meanings:

  • Throwing someone under the bus — meaning abandoning someone because associating with them may harm your reputation.
  • Throwing someone to the lions — a reference to a Roman punishment, this phrase means to abandon someone to a cruel fate.
  • Throwing someone to the dogs — abandoning someone, not necessarily for a particular reason.
  • Kicking someone to the curb — rejecting someone in a humiliating way.

Phrases Opposite to Thrown to the Wolves

Phrases with an opposite meaning include:

  • One for all and all for one — meaning everyone works for the greater good and defends one another.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — treat others how you want them to treat you.

What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct saying is “to throw someone to the wolves,” or someone was “thrown to the wolves.” This idiom means sacrificing someone to save yourself or the group.

Ways People May Say Thrown to the Wolves Incorrectly

The idiom “thrown to the wolves” has a strong negative connotation. Therefore, don’t use it to describe actions you feel are justified.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Thrown to the Wolves

You can use the idiom “thrown to the wolves” to describe a situation where someone was unfairly rejected, abandoned, or pushed out to benefit others. It is easy to find circumstances that call for this phrase in politics, the corporate world, or sports.

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