What does the idiom "behind bars" mean?

The phrase behind bars is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of behind bars.

Meaning of "behind bars"


The idiom "behind bars" generally refers to a person being incarcerated, either in prison, jail, or some other form of correctional facility. It is typically used in the context of someone committing a crime or being sentenced to prison time. It is often used metaphorically to describe someone's confinement to a place of restriction, such as by referencing the use of a 'straightjacket'.


The phrase "behind bars" originated in the 18th century and was used to refer to the confinement of prisoners to their cells or the prison. The phrase was likely derived from the jails and prisons of the day which were surrounded by large, barred walls and gates. The bars served to keep the prisoners confined and limited their mobility. The phrase was quickly adopted to denote a state of confinement and gradually expanded to include other forms of restriction and imprisonment.


The phrase "behind bars" is typically used to describe someone who has been incarcerated for some criminal act. The phrase can be used in a literal sense, such as when a person is convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, or in a figurative sense, such as when someone is held back from doing something or is blocked from achieving a goal. It can also be used to describe someone's confinement within an institution or a place of restriction, or as an allusion to mental health or addiction issues, as in being "locked up" in one's own mind.

Example Sentences

  • John was found guilty of the crime and was sent behind bars.
  • The oppressive government held its citizens behind bars and denied them freedom.
  • She felt like she was stuck behind bars, unable to achieve her dreams.
  • He felt like he was being held behind bars in his own mind, unable to break free.

The meanings of the words in the "behind bars" idiom

Idioms with similar meaning

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is an English idiom that means you shouldn't make assumptions about someone or something based solely on its appearance. In Japanese, the similar idiom is "Hana yori dango," which translates to "Dumplings rather than flowers." This idiom means that substance is more important than appearance.


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