Etymology: Grasping at straws

In a recent conversation with my husband the phrase “grasping at straws” popped up.  Which lead to the question, where did this term come from?  We were literally grasping at straws trying to figure out the origins of the term,”grasping at straws.”

This led me to an online search.  Here’s what I learned:

The etymology of this phrase comes originally from Thomas More in his work Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534).  The idiom refers to a drowning man grasping for anything, even a straw, to save his life.  In today’s world it has come to mean to act or make a decision, usually in desperation, without enough information or resources.

Variations include: clutching at straws, grasp at straws, clutch at straws, etc.

Wiktionary: Grasp at Straw – best definition and sourcing of the term among the many sites I checked.

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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9 Responses to Etymology: Grasping at straws

  1. Another definition: Me, trying to find my next post topic. Sigh.

  2. nrhatch says:

    Love learning the origin of commonly used “odd” expressions.

    You should check out “mind your p’s and q’s” . . . it’s a good one.

  3. Paula says:

    Mind your “p’s” and q’s” I am told is an Olde English expression from ye olde pubs – back when England still measured their beer in pints and quarts. As you ordered your beer from the bartender, he put a tally of what you drank on a blackboard behind the bar that everyone could see. When you were observed as having had too much, or had not yet paid up, you were told to mind your Pints and Quarts, or your P’s and Q’s. That’s what I have always understood, anyway.

    BTW, thanks for reminding me of what used to be one of my favorite pastimes – a tradition handed down to me from my Dad. We loved to look up the origins of words and phrases. I’ll have to get busy on that hobby again.

    • tsuchigari says:

      Love it! Perhaps I’ll stash that in my stack of fun things to post… Awhile back we had a desk calendar that had word origins for every day of the year, we thought it was great.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Review #12 « My Literary Quest

  5. Oftenlucid says:

    I am confused, no surprise there. “Grasping at straws” seems to be plural. The plant by-product “Straw” is both singular and plural. Are they referring to drinking straws? Should the phrase be grasping at straw? That would make more sense in this context.

    • Jodi says:

      You’re right. Grammatically speaking it should be “grasping at straw” for exactly the reason you stated. English and colloquialisms tend to smear the line to where the saying contains the plural “straws” even though it’s not technically correct.

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