Grasping at straws

Last chance.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the phrase “grabbing at straws”?  And does it still have the same meaning as when it was first used?  I searched the archives and I am quite sure this has not been answered. — Michael Tambornino.

And you are quite correct.  You also get an automatic ten point bonus for checking our archives before asking your question.  There are about 1500 back columns available free there, so there’s a decent chance that whatever one might be seeking has already been sought.  But I really don’t mind if folks ask a question I’ve already answered.  Sometimes I even answer it again.

The original, and still the most literal, meaning of “straw” is the stems and stalks of grains, such as wheat, rye, oats, etc., left over after the grain has been threshed and the bits useful as food have been removed.  When we first moved from Manhattan to rural Ohio, I was under the impression that “straw” and “hay” were the same thing.  Wrong-o-rama.  Hay is essentially dried grass used as food for livestock.  Straw is used for many things (animal bedding, straw hats, etc.), but not as a primary food for livestock.

The source of our English word “straw” is a Germanic root with the general sense of “that which is strewn,” or scattered, a reference to the still common use of straw as a bedding or floor covering in barns, etc.  We inherited “straw” directly from the Old English “streaw,” and we’ve been piling new meanings and uses onto this little word ever since, from “straw” as a symbol of something worthless or insubstantial, to the “straw” that comes with a cold drink, in the 19th century an actual piece of straw, now a plastic tube.

Straw has also loomed large in English idioms and proverbs.  “Man of straw” or “straw man” (what we would call a “scarecrow”) has, since the 16th century, meant a dishonest person of no substance, an imaginary foe, or, most often today, an invented and bogus argument.  It was just one more straw (“the last straw”) that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and “a straw in the wind” has long been a metaphor for something that indicates a change in public attitudes, which gave us “straw poll” and “straw vote” as terms for quick, unofficial surveys of opinion.

“Grabbing at straws” (or “grasping,” today the more common form) comes from the very old proverb noted by Samuel Richardson in his novel Clarissa (1748): “A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says.”  The “straw” in this case refers to the sort of thin reeds that grow by the side of a river, which a drowning man being swept away by a fast current might desperately grasp in a futile attempt to save himself.  Thus “grasp at straws” has, since at least the 18th century, meant “to make a desperate and almost certainly futile effort to save oneself” (“Bob’s attempt to build a case that the contract was not valid because it contained a split infinitive was just grasping at straws”).  “Grasping at straws” is still very much in use in this sense, as by one source quoted by the Associated Press in a recent news story on the economy: “People have to pay the bills, so what we see is people kind of grasping at straws and taking anything that’s available.”

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