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What Does “as Thick as Thieves” Mean?

You’ve likely heard people described “as thick as thieves.” It’s an idiom (a phrase with a meaning the words don’t tell you). While this isn’t necessarily a negative saying, it can bring some negative meanings, so it is important to know when it truly applies before you use it, especially in professional settings.

But, what does “as thick as thieves” truly mean, and how do you use it?

The Origin of the Phrase “Thick as Thieves” 

Tracing back the phrase back to its earlier versions and etymology, the saying began in early 1800s France. More specifically, there was a phrase in 18th-century France (s’entendre comme larron en foire) that meant something along the lines of “like thieves at a fair.” 

Over time, it is probably clear that this original phrase was adapted to fit modern usage, where we see it commonly used today in its English variant. What is unusual is that the cliché “thick as thieves” is one of the only surviving uses of thick to mean “close” or “intimate” and “related.”

This example sentence for its American usage comes from an 1833 book by Theodore E. Hook named The Parson’s Daughter: “She and my wife are thick as thieves, as the proverb goes: they know each other’s secrets, and lay their heads together, to do all the mischief they can.”

Thick as thieves was likely adapted from the French form because of another phrase: “thick as inkle-weavers” where inkle designates linen laces on garments. The phrase means something similar and was first recorded in 1699 from New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, by “B. E. Gent.”

The Meaning of “Thick as Thieves” 

In casual conversation, “thick as thieves” typically describes two people with an incredibly strong relationship or bond. It doesn’t traditionally have a specific social-hierarchical tie, so you can now use it for family, friends, or even professional relationships.

Additionally, the phrase usually describes those who would have each other’s back through any situation. In other words, two people who are as “thick as thieves” would stick with each other through bad and good times!

The phrase also denotes that there is a level of privacy or even secrecy in these relationships. From an outside perspective, people who are as “thick as thieves” may not be approachable due to their close relationship. Such might have been the case with gangs and whisky-runners back in the day.

In a more ordinary sense, the saying is often used to refer to those who may be up to no good with a close accomplice. However, when taken in this sense, it is typically used more playfully rather than negatively in the United States.

How to Use the Phrase “Thick as Thieves” 

As mentioned earlier, there isn’t a limit to the type of relationship that this phrase can describe in modern usage. For instance, parents and children can be described as “thick as thieves” if their relationship is close enough.

Some other common relationships that can be attributed to be thick as thieves depends on the circumstance, but can include more than horse-thieves:

  • Best friends
  • Work colleagues
  • Employees and employers
  • Siblings
  • Teacher-student relationships

Examples of “as Thick as Thieves” 

Whenever “two peas in a pod” stick together like glue (or even seem to speak a secretive language), you can use thick as thieves to communicate they’re in cahoots with each other no matter the situation or occasion. Now that you understand the meaning “thick as thieves,” let’s see it used in real life:

  • Apparently, the pair are thick as thieves.—Independent

  • Turns out this lot are already thick as thieves.—The Guardian

    After all, Webber and Latrell Sprewell, his former mate at Golden State, are thick as thieves.—The New York Times


Further reading:

Here are some other great expressions known to language experts for their interesting history and usage that you can integrate into your writing:

Dog Whistle

Scot Free

Close, But No Cigar

Go To Hell In A Handbasket

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By Ryan Fisher

Ryan holds degrees from Pacific Lutheran University and specializes in proofreading, editing, and content writing with an emphasis on business communication.

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