The last straw: literally and figuratively

9 October 2020

With South Australia recently becoming the first Australian state to introduce laws banning some single-use plastics, including cutlery, straws and stirrers, I was reminded of the many English expressions that involve straws. 

The word ‘straw’ comes from the Old English word strēaw of Germanic origin and related to Dutch stroo and German Stroh. The Oxford English Dictionary defines straw as ‘Dried stalks of grain, used especially as fodder or as material for thatching, packing, or weaving.’ A straw can be either ‘a single dried stalk of grain’ or a ‘thin hollow tube of paper or plastic for sucking drink from a glass or bottle’. Of course, we now also have drinking straws made of other materials such as metal and bamboo.

Straws in the wind

The introduction of single-use plastic laws in South Australia was no ‘straw in the wind’. But on the other side of the world, a powerful public figure touting an experimental therapeutic drug as a cure for a deadly disease made a ‘straw in the wind’ claim not based on scientific evidence. Anyone making such a claim could well be ‘clutching at straws’ and in such a desperate situation as to resort to even the most unlikely means of salvation. Or perhaps they simply didn’t care ‘two straws’ about scientific evidence.

The last straw breaking the camel’s back

If you’ve been under a lot of stress, you may experience an event that feels like ‘the last straw’. Typically, the ‘last straw’ is a minor event in itself, but coming on top of a series of difficulties, it makes a situation unbearable and becomes ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ These expressions date back to the mid-18th century and are still widely used today.

Drawing straws

To decide who will be the one from a group to complete a task, people may ‘draw straws’ (or draw lots). The person who drew the short straw is generally considered the unluckiest of the group, especially if they are chosen to perform an unpleasant task.

In his famous novel Oliver Twist (1839), Charles Dickens portrays a workhouse with orphaned boys so neglected, ill-treated and experiencing such extreme hunger, that one child threatens to eat one of the others if he isn’t better fed. The hungry boys hold a council and '... lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.' It was a request that led to dire consequences for the young Oliver.

You can actually ‘draw straws’  with any even-length, straight object that you can easily break to make one of them shorter, such as wooden matches. Yet, we still say we drew ‘the short straw.’

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English is not the only language that has idiomatic expressions like these related to straws; however, translations may not always be exact. For example, the French ‘la goutte qui fait déborder le vase’ which is literally translated to ‘the drop that makes the vase overflow’, has a similar meaning to ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ but uses different imagery.

The English language is full of intriguing expressions like these. Such expressions are what make the language interesting and unique. But like anything we write, we do need to think about our audience and use words and expressions they will understand or that can be easily translated into different languages.

Need help finding the right words? We offer plain English editing and training services to government and private organisations. Contact us at patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au or phone 02 9238 6638.

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