Tilting at Windmills – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Did someone tell you to stop “tilting at windmills?” What do they mean? There aren’t any windmills around, so what are they talking about? This post unpacks this idiomatic expression’s meaning, origin, and use.

Tilting at Windmills Meaning

If you’re “tilting at windmills,” it means that you’re fighting imaginary enemies and wasting your time worrying about the outcome of the engagement.

For instance, if you find yourself getting angry or emotional at a task or someone else’s life that you have no control over, you’re “tilting at windmills.” So, it would help if you put your energy to better use at completing productive tasks rather than trying to control things out of your hands.

The phrase essentially means that you’re worrying about something for nothing, and it’s not doing your mental health any favors. Another example would be arguing with your partner because you think she’s flirting with someone else while she’s only being friendly.

Tilting at Windmills Example Usage

“Jim is over there shouting at no one because he is so mad. Just leave him to tilt at windmills; he’ll eventually run out of steam.”

Debbie spent six hours preparing a harshly-worded email that she’ll never send to HR. Talk about tilting at windmills.”

“The kid spends the whole day in his room playing Call of Duty and tilting at windows instead of getting out into the real world to meet people.”

“After taking four hours of my day to argue with a stranger, I realized I was tilting at windmills.”

Tilting at Windmills Origin

The earliest reference of the word “tilting” comes from the middle ages, where it was a moniker for jousting. Jousting is a sport where two knights would ride horses at speed to each other, attempting to lance the other rider from their mount to win the engagement.

The expression “tilting at windmills” first appears in “Don Quixote, The Ingenious Knight of La Mancha,” published by Cervantes in 1604. However, the phrase changed its meaning as the centuries passed; the first figurative reference of “tilting at windmills” occurs in the 17th century in the work of John Cleveland, “The character of a London diurnall,” published in 1644. The phrase appears in the text as follows.

“The quixotes of this age fight with the windmills of their owne heads.”

However, the phrase would appear in its modern format with its current meaning in the 19th century. The New York Times wrote an article in April 1870 stating,

“They have not thus far had sufficient of an organization behind them to make their opposition to the Committee’s bill anything more than tilting at windmills.”

Phrases Similar to Tilting at Windmills

  • Making a fuss over nothing.
  • Making something out of nothing.
  • Pursue a vain goal.
  • Fighting imaginary enemies.

Phrases Opposite to Tilting at Windmills

  • Confident and secure.
  • Keeping a cool head.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Tilting at windmills.
  • Tilting at the windmills.

Ways People May Say Tilting at Windmills Incorrectly

Some people may use “tilting at windmills” to describe a person fighting off real enemies in a tense situation. However, the phrase refers to imaginary objects, and the person wastes their time and emotional energy fighting off enemies that are not there or dwelling on unimportant occurrences in their lives.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Tilting at Windmills

You can use “tilting at windmills” in social and professional situations. If you’re wasting your employer’s time trying to accomplish a task that has no value, you’re tilting at windmills. If you’re complaining about things in your life where you have no control over the outcome, you’re tilting at windmills.

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