What Does “It Takes Two To Tango” Mean? How To Use It


what does it takes two to tango mean

There’s a popular saying that almost everyone has heard used today. It says that “it takes two to tango.” What does this mean though?

The saying “it takes two to tango” is a fancy way of saying that it takes two people to argue because you can’t argue with yourself. This means that when it comes time to bear responsibility for the argument both of the parties who were involved must come together to shoulder the blame for it.

tango dancers in red light

Meaning of the Phrase

“It takes two to tango” is a common idiomatic expression. This means that it is a phrase that has a figurative or nonliteral meaning. In other words, its figurative meaning is not the same as its literal meaning. For instance, when you hear this phrase you may think of two people dancing the tango but this isn’t what the person who quoted the phrase actually means. Instead, what they’re trying to tell you is that it takes more than one person or entity paired together to complete the activity.

This is a phrase that’s commonly said when trying to emphasize that both people who were involved in a situation must accept the blame. This is because the activity required two willing parties in order for it to occur. The objectives would have otherwise not been accomplished or at the very least they’d have been unsuccessful. Sometimes the activity doesn’t have to be one that’s negative in nature. Instead, it could be an agreement or a consensual bargain.

To get a better understanding of the meaning behind the phrase, “it takes two to tango” you must understand that the tango is a South American dance. In this dance two people are required to move in relation to one another whether this is in tandem or in opposition is something that will vary throughout the dance itself. Therefore the situation that this phrase relates to is one in which it’s understood that two partners are essential (e.g. a marriage).

When you look at the lyrics from which this phrase originated you’ll see that there are many things that you’re able to do alone listed there. The lyrics then continue on to contrast these with performing the tango – something that requires you to have a partner. This is something that’s been said in a variety of ways over the years including:

  • It takes two to cooperate: Two parties must work together to do something like two parties must work together to pass a bill
  • It takes two to make a bargain: When this is said the person who’s speaking means that both parties must assent to an agreement or a bargain in order for it to be deemed a success.
  • It takes two to make a quarrel: In other words, two disputing parties are necessary when there’s an argument. This is because both parties must share responsibility for taking different sides in the dispute. As such, you really can’t blame just one person when both people are at fault here.

Regardless of how you say “it takes two to tango” you’ll always be saying the same thing: It takes two people to either disagree or to come together to make something work.

it takes two tango sign on blackboard

Origin of the Phrase

The phrase “it takes two to tango” originated in a song in 1952 that was written and composed by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning. Pearl Bailey sang the song helping to make its lyrics and melody popular. It goes like this:

“Takes two to tango, two to tango

Two to really get the feeling of romance

Let’s do the tango, do the tango

Do the dance of love

You can sail on a ship by yourself

Take a nap or a nip by yourself

You can get into debt on your own

There’s a lot of things that you can do alone

But it

Takes two to tango, two to tango

Two to really get the feeling of romance

Let’s do the tango, do the tango

Do the dance of love”

The phrase may have died off some until Ronald Reagan used it in 1982. The international media picked up on it when he made a witty remark in regard to Russian-American relations. Here he’s quoted as saying, “For ten years détente was based on words by them [the Russians] and not any words to back them up. And we need some action that they — it takes two to tango — that they want to tango also.” Ever since then this metaphor has been used on a regular basis in headlines that were written by the international press. It’s even been used as a proverb in various other languages as well. Additionally, there are a few places where it’s seen in American legal writing such as: 

  • “It takes at least two to tango for conspiracy purposes.” — US v. Villasanor, 894 F.2d 1422 (5th Cir. 1990).
  • “This is a situation where it takes more than two to tango,” — Gant v. Aliquippa Borough, 612 F.Supp. 1139 (W.D. Penn. 1985).

When it’s used in legal writing it’s usually used to make reference to a dubious transaction – something like a bribe. This is because in both the United Kingdom and the United States conventional wisdom presumes if one party is guilty both parties are guilty.

Example Sentences

Now that you understand where this idiom came from and what it means, you may want to start using it in some of your conversations. Here are a few sentences to help you get started:

  • You can’t blame me for this argument. It takes two to tango.
  • We need to have a discussion if we ever want to reach an agreement because it takes two to tango.
  • Remember, it takes two to tango and until we bury our differences it’ll never happen.
  • You can’t blame the woman for committing adultery since it takes two to tango.
  • Neither of us can be successful in this by ourselves because it requires two to tango.
  • Divorce is never the fault of one party since it takes two to tango.
  • I’ve tried to stop our marriage from falling apart but this is a case where it takes two to tango.

The Use of Idioms in Music

You’ve probably heard it said that “music makes the world go around.” This basically means that music is a beautiful way in which to help people connect. It’s also one of the many idioms that come from the world of music.

An idiom is a phrase that doesn’t actually mean what it says. For instance, when you say “it takes two to tango” you may be thinking of two people who are doing the South American dance, the tango. Whereas in reality, this idiom means that it takes two people to either argue or agree depending on what the subject being discussed is.

With the idiom “music makes the world go around” you may be thinking of a globe that’s spinning as music is being played. However, since this is an idiom it isn’t what’s being said. This phrase actually means that people connect through music in such a way that they’re able to relax a bit and escape from the realities of stress that fills their daily lives. In other words, music is an art form that both inspires and motivates people.

The English language is full of idioms. There are thousands of them all with different themes. To understand what these different idioms mean whenever you hear them you must first have a good understanding of what an idiom is.

An idiom is defined as a group of words (a short phrase) in which each of the words cannot be taken literally. This is because the phrase has a figurative meaning – a meaning that is based upon the context in which the speaker is using it. Idioms can also have a theme when the speaker isn’t even referencing this theme. For instance, when you hear “it takes two to tango” you’re probably thinking about dancing but the English meaning for this doesn’t have anything to do with dancing at all.

dancers hold hands in the dark

Now that you have a better understanding of idioms (what they are and how they work), you should know that “it takes two to tango” isn’t the only idiom that relates to music. The English language contains several others as well. These include:

  • Ring a bell
  • Music to (someone’s) ears: 
  • Toot your own horn/Blow your own trumpet
  • Play it by ear
  • Have to face the music
  • Clean as a whistle
  • All that jazz
  • March to the beat of your own drum
  • Carry a tune
  • Jazz (something) up
  • With bells on
  • Fine-tuning
  • Like a broken record
  • Blow the whistle/ whistleblower:

Conclusion

When you use the expression “it takes two to tango” you’re saying that the two parties that were involved had to act cooperatively in order to be successful. This phrase is also used to denote that when two people are involved in a negative situation both of them are responsible for it.

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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