We were recently discussing the idiom “to be left holding the bag” and couldn”t come up with a proper idea about where that might come from initially. Our possible solutions were somewhat goofy and involving a failed drug deal where the seller was left holding the bag of illegal material…
LEFT HOLDING THE BAG – “To be deserted by one's comrades and left with the entire onus of what was originally a group responsibility. Similar expressions are to be 'left holding the baby' and left to 'carry the can.'” From “Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).
Origin: Mid-18th Century, British and American jonathanlewisforcongress.com – The original form of the expression was “give someone the bag to hold” (to keep them occupied while you slipped away). The point of view has shifted over the centuries to that of the victim – the one holding the bag.
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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
To be left holding the bag (and presumably nothing else), “cheated, swindled” is attested by 1793. Many figurative senses
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:
This idiom grew out of the earlier give one the bag (to hold), which dates from about 1600 and alludes to being left with an empty bag while others have taken the valuable contents.
Etymologies given by resources that focus on a more general audience:
The Whole Ball of Wax and Other Colloquial Phrases:
The American form may come from the old confidence trick known as the drop game (q.v.) in which the sucker is left holding a (hand)bag filled with worthless paper
Safire”s Political Dictionary:
a snipe hunt is an elaborate practical joke in which the victim is left in a lonely field at night holding a sack and a tennis racket, one origin of the phrase left holding the bag;
Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples:
As early as the 1500″s, to give the bag (to someone) meant to leave them quickly. An early example that is close to the modern phrase was written in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson: “…if the bankruptcies of England proceed…she will leave Spain the bag to hold…”