Shut the barn door after the horse has bolted and close the barn door after the horse has bolted are versions of an idiom that has been in use for hundreds of years. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common saying shut the barn door after the horse has bolted or close the barn door after the horse has bolted, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.
Shut the barn door after the horse has bolted and close the barn door after the horse has bolted are variations of an idiom that means to do too little, too late; to try to stop something that has already happened or is in the process of happening and cannot be stopped; to make an effort that is futile because the damage has already been done. The expression shut the barn door after the horse has bolted or close the barn door after the horse has bolted stems from very literal imagery; it is useless to close a barn door to keep a horse in the barn once the horse has already left the barn. Variations of the phrase are found as far back as the 1300s.
“I liken the SEC’s proposal to going to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted only to find that someone else has already shut the door,” Johnson said. (Investor’s Business Daily)
“The Service’s attempt to slam shut the barn door after the horse already bolted is not sufficient,” the ruling said. (Capital Press)
They may, however, be a case of trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted. (The Times of Malta)
“You don’t close the barn door after the horse has already left.” (Post-Star)