The last straw
Rather like the wafer thin mint was to Mr Creosote in the Meaning of Life, the straw in this expression is the thing that makes a situation unbearable or catastrophic. The full version of the phrase is “the last straw that breaks the camel’s back”. Camels have long been used as beasts of burden in foreign parts and each animal logically has its maximum weight limit, something doubtless established by trial and error. A bit beyond the maximum payload and the camel won’t be able to carry it too far.
Given that camels are not common or garden domestic animals in England, the obvious question is when and why did this phrase enter the English language. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, without offering any evidence, suggests that it was a proverb that dated back to the 17th century. It was certainly in use in the early 19th century and was used with its current meaning as this quotation from the Edinburgh Advertiser from May 1816 shows, “if it were only 3d a head, or 4d and 5d, upon the lower orders, yet straw upon straw was laid until the last straw broke the camel’s back”.
Thirteen years later in the same newspaper we have a variant which couples a feather with a horse’s back, the horse, of course, being a much more familiar type of domestic animal here. “that agitation was only the cause of Emancipation in the same sense in which it is true that the last feather breaks the horse’s back”. Inevitably the two strands were conflated in an American publication, the Southport American, in October 1843, “the feather which breaks the camel’s back having been added to Sir Walter’s burthen..” Feathers, straw, camels and horses – we are rather clutching at straws – a phrase we use to signify trying to extricate ourselves from a desperate situation – if we try and make any sense out of this melange.
Although Sir Thomas More used the metaphor of a drowning man desperately clutching on to anything that might save him – “a man in peril of drowning catchest whatsoever cometh next to hand..be it ever so simple a stick (A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation – 1534)” – it was John Prime in his Fruitful and Brief Discourse of 1583 who introduced straw – “we do not as men redie to be drowned, catch at every straw”. Samuel Richardson in Clarissa (1748) notes that it is an old proverb, “a drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says” and it is a graphic illustration of desperate futility. The straw – reeds – might float or might be something that you can cling on to but it is unlikely either to bear your weight or impede the current from carrying you off.
One of the senses of the rather generic verb to catch in medieval times and later was of obtaining or achieving or capturing. This sense was superseded around the mid 18th and early 19th century by more specific verbs such as grasp, grab and clutch. Clutch was used in the New York Mirror in 1832, “as drowning men clutch at straws” whereas today we are more likely to grasp at them. Whichever verb or participle you choose to use, the sense is the same.
Straw, because of our agricultural heritage, appears in a number of other idioms which we will leave to explore to another time.