rub shoulders: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘rub shoulders’ mean?

The idiom "rub shoulders" means to come into contact or have a social interaction with someone, typically someone influential or important.

Idiom Explorer

The Symbolism of Proximity

The idiom "rub shoulders" is a metaphorical expression often used in everyday conversation in the United States. It refers to coming into close contact or association with someone, usually someone of importance or influence. While its exact origin is unknown, it is believed to have originated in the early 19th century. Some related idioms include "rub elbows," "bump into," "cross paths," "cross someone's path," and "get together."

One interpretation suggests that "rub shoulders" comes from the physical act of rubbing shoulders with others in crowded spaces, such as in busy marketplaces or social gatherings. In these environments, people accidentally brush against each other as they navigate through the crowd. This physical contact creates a sense of familiarity and connection. Similarly, "rub elbows" implies close proximity or interaction with someone of importance or influence.

"Bump into" and "cross paths" are also related idioms. They describe unexpected encounters with someone, often by chance. These idioms emphasize the element of surprise and spontaneity in coming into contact with someone important or influential. It can happen anywhere, whether it's at a coffee shop or a networking event.

Networking allows for social mingling and connections through interactions.

Another related idiom, "cross someone's path," refers to meeting or encountering someone, often in an unexpected or coincidental way. This phrase conveys a sense of fate or destiny, as if the encounter was meant to happen. It can apply to meeting someone influential or important in any context, such as professionally or socially.

Lastly, "get together" is another related idiom that implies gathering or meeting with a group of people. It can involve friends, colleagues, or even influential individuals. A get-together can provide an opportunity to rub shoulders with people of significance and create connections that can bring about personal or professional benefits.

Today, the idiom "rub shoulders" is often used to describe situations where individuals have the chance to interact with or get close to celebrities, prominent figures, or influential people within their respective fields. It implies exclusivity, as not everyone has the opportunity to rub shoulders with such individuals. This desire to be in the same social or professional circles as those one admires can be expressed through related idioms like "rub elbows" or "bump into."

It is worth noting that "rub shoulders" is not limited to literal physical contact. The idiom can also be used figuratively to describe encounters where individuals have the chance to engage with someone of importance or influence in a non-physical way, such as through conversation or networking. These non-physical interactions are reflected in idioms like "cross paths" or "get together."

The idiom "rub shoulders" signifies the act of being in close proximity to someone of significance or influence, both literally and figuratively. It encapsulates the desire for connection, the potential opportunities that can arise from such encounters, and the sense of aspiration or admiration that often accompanies them. While its exact origin remains unknown, the idiom continues to be widely used in contemporary language, reflecting its enduring relevance in society.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom rub shoulders can be used in a sentence:

  1. At the charity gala, I had the opportunity to rub shoulders with important political figures.
  2. As an intern, I often rub shoulders with experienced professionals in the industry.
  3. During my travels, I had the chance to rub shoulders with locals and learn about their culture.

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