There are a lot of sayings used in the English language that people have no idea where they came from. Sometimes people don't even know where these sayings originated. It's important to understand these things in order to truly have a grasp of the English language today.
"To hold out an olive branch" is a saying that comes from Genesis 8:11. Here Noah received an olive branch from a dove indicating that God's anger was assuaged and that the flood ended. Today it means that you've done or said something to show that you want to end a disagreement with someone.
Meaning of the Idiom
When you're holding out an olive branch to someone you're saying or doing something to show that you want to end a fight or disagreement with the other person. There are many other ways of saying this same thing. Some of them include:
- accept apology
- bear no malice
- end a quarrel
- kiss and make up
- let bygones be bygones
- make a peace offering
- make peace
- smoke the peace pipe
- wipe slate clean
Origin of the Idiom
Since ancient times people have used an olive branch to symbolize peace. However, some people feel that the idiom itself actually dates back to 1450 BC to 1400 BC. This is because in Genesis 8:11 we read "And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." If you believe this, then the idiom is about 3,400 years old.
The Biblical Story of the Olive Branch
In the Bible, the story of the flood tells us that Noah took two pairs of every animal with him onto an ark to weather a storm for 300 days. On day 301 Noah sent out a raven to see if the flood had ended and if there was any sign of dry land. When the raven returned without a sign he waited and then sent out a dove who brought back an olive branch. This signified that the flood was over because the olive branch was able to withstand the torrential conditions.
Noah believed that since they'd found dry land, God had forgiven his people. This is because in biblical times the olive branch was a common symbol. While we aren't told in this passage that Noah already knew the meaning of the olive branch we're shown that he did indeed have this knowledge because he took it to mean that God was offering him a sign of peace.
Why an Olive Branch in the Bible
Many people over the years have found themselves wondering why an olive branch was used in the Bible. Some people say that olive branches are very hardy and thus able to withstand extreme conditions. So, while other foliage wasn't able to withstand the flood, the olive tree did. When the dove brought the olive tree branch back it indicated that the floodwaters had receded enough to allow foliage to start growing again.
When you look at the figurative language that's used in the idiom "to hold out an olive branch" you can see a similar meaning as was found in the Bible passage. Here you're holding out an olive branch that represents your friendship. In doing so you're offering to allow things to proceed as normal again.
It's interesting to note here that the Bible uses its words sparingly so it could have just as easily told us that the dove brought back some leaves without telling us what kind they were. This suggests that there's an even deeper significance of the olive branch and why we needed to know that it was being held in the dove's mouth.
In the Bible, the branch served as proof that the floodwaters had receded enough that an olive tree could start growing. It could have said any type of branch or no specific type at all but olives played a central role in the region's culture at that time. Therefore it represented endurance, faith, resilience, and strength.
Today you can see this as meaning that you believe that the relationship was strong before this event occurred. You're also suggesting that it's worth fighting for.
The Meaning of an Olive Branch
While this idiom definitely originates from the Bible, the olive branch has proven meaningful in many civilizations throughout the ages. It's interesting to take a look at these civilizations and why the olive branch was so important to them.
Throughout Greek tradition, we read about a hiketeria. This is an olive branch that was held by those who were humbling themselves as they approached the gods or someone who was ruling over them. It's something that's seen in the Greek mythological account of Athena and still seen today as brides and Olympic victors are both adorned with olive wreaths. By "holding out an olive branch" in this way humility is still being shown throughout the Greek culture.
In ancient Rome, the olive branch was used in several places including:
- Roman Imperial coins had Eirene on them. The personification of peace, she held an olive branch upward in her right hand.
- The goddess Pax became associated with plump olives thanks to the Roman poet Virgil. In his epic poem, he had Eirene holding up an olive branch as a symbol of peace.
Today the olive branch is also held out as a symbol of peace – oftentimes figuratively but sometimes literally too.
Throughout various cultures, the olive branch has been in use for quite a long time now. You'll find it being used in everything from religious texts to historical texts, books, and movies. Today you'll also see many people who have an olive branch tattoo. There are many meanings behind these tattoos including:
- Longevity and growth because these trees are known to live for up to a thousand years. In fact, there's an olive tree in southern Greece that's 3,000 years old.
- Overcoming adversity because olive trees can survive really harsh weather conditions since they're very sturdy trees.
- Clarity, calmness, and rational thinking
- Peace and friendship
In a similar fashion, when someone says that they're "holding out an olive branch" they could be meaning any of these things. They could be calmer and thinking more rationally so they see they want to overcome the adversity so that the relationship can grow and last for a very long time. Therefore, thanks to their clarity they're no prepared to offer you peace and friendship.
Usage of the Idiom
Throughout history and in various cultures the olive branch has been seen as a symbol both of peace and of goodwill. This is why when someone says that they're "holding out an olive branch" it means that they want to have peace. Oftentimes the idiom itself isn't used but a person may still make a gesture or say something that indicates that they want to end a disagreement with someone. When this is done someone else may say that they've "held out an olive branch."
Whether you want to say that you're "holding out an olive branch" or that you've seen someone else doing this, there are a lot of opportunities to use this idiom in a sentence. Here are a few examples to help you get started:
- Even though he disagreed with what Tom did, he still chose to hold out an olive branch to him.
- The country was the first to extend an olive branch to its neighbor with whom it had been quarreling.
- Unfortunately, the family feud had lasted for so long that nobody remembered what they'd been fighting about. Therefore when an olive branch was held out to them they quickly accepted it.
- The Republicans hoped to promote bipartisanship so they held out an olive branch to the Democrats.
- When you're negotiating you may need to be willing to take an olive branch when it's being offered to you.
- Sally offered her party's critics an olive branch.
- When he made his televised statement he appeared to be holding out an olive branch to the scornful international community.
- In our efforts to hold out an olive branch to the clients we offered a discount on all services.
- When he was arguing for bail for his client the lawyer appeared to be holding out an olive branch to the other side.
- Thursday, at the meeting, the commission held out an olive branch to the other side offering to fully cooperate with them during the transfer of power.
"To hold out an olive branch" is a great thing to do today because it means that you're offering peace and that you want to end the disagreement and move forward with forgiving the person. This is a saying that we frequently hear throughout the English language and now you'll hopefully know what's being said – maybe you'll even have a good enough understanding of this idiom to be able to start using it yourself.
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.