What Does "Be Careful What You Wish for" Mean?

Alicia Sparks

The idiom “be careful what you wish for” is often used as a type of warning to people who are wishing for one thing, but might not realize all the negative consequences that could accompany obtaining that wish. Sometimes, the saying is followed by “it might come true,” “lest it come true,” “you may receive it,” “you just might get it,” or some other similar ending phrase. Due to the contradictory meaning of those two phrases, their combination might confuse those who have never heard the idiom in its entirety. Of course, whether the idiom provides a certain truth is entirely up to the situation. Often, the contradictory nature of the idiom does not negate the real warning it provides.

Someone wishing to win the lottery might be warned to "be careful what you wish for."
Someone wishing to win the lottery might be warned to "be careful what you wish for."

By itself, the saying might not have much meaning to those who have never heard it. Coupled with one of the other ending phrases, however, it becomes a rather oxymoronic or paradoxical statement. This means it contains elements that are seemingly contradictory. When a person tells another person to be careful about what he wishes for because his wish might come true, the receiver of the advice might think it is odd advice, given that he does want his wish to come true. In that sense, the phrase seems contradictory.

Someone who buys a new car risks theft or vandalism.
Someone who buys a new car risks theft or vandalism.

Like many idiomatic expressions, “be careful what you wish for” can be used in numerous everyday life situations. Usually, examples of appropriate times to use it combine a good outcome with a negative consequence. In other words, the person gets his wish, but it is accompanied by a negative result, too.

For example, a person’s neighbor might warn him to be careful about wishing to win the lottery, because of the money-related problems he could face upon winning. Likewise, a friend might warn another friend about wishing for a brand new car, because of the higher amount of insurance he will have to pay and the increase in risk of theft and vandalism his new car might face. One co-worker might warn another co-worker about wishing for a promotion, because of all the additional responsibilities that would cause personal stress and decrease the amount of time he can spend at home with his family. A homeowner might wish for a bigger house, without thinking of the increased utility bills that would follow. Each of these situations have both a positive outcome, meaning the person got his wish, and a negative consequence, meaning the person also received off-putting or even harmful results, as well.

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Discussion Comments


@feruze-- I'm sure it is. I've heard the quote used for titles of TV episodes before.

There was also a very funny story in the news about a man whose wife got her voice back after thirty some years. And the guy was upset because his wife was talking a lot now and asking him to do housework even though he used to wish that she could talk before.

This has to be the perfect example for this quote.


Wasn't the "be careful what you wish for" quote a saying in a popular story or a film?


I said this to my friend the other day. My friend loves kids and really wants to have children. Whenever she sees a baby, she cries out that she wants to be pregnant. She said the same thing the other day and I told her "be careful what you wish for."

She has a boyfriend and could very well get pregnant with a baby. But she actually doesn't want a baby before getting married. I don't think she knows what she is really asking for!

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