Grammar

Why We Say ‘That’s the Last Straw’

A camel stands on a sandy desert landscape.Deposit Photos

The idiom ‘the last straw’ comes from a longer phrase that sometimes involves a horse and sometimes a camel. Here’s how it came to be.

You have surely heard and probably used a phrase involving the words “the last straw.” You may even have used a longer version talking about that “last straw” breaking the back of a camel or a horse. But where did this phrase come from?

First, it’s an idiom. An idiom is a phrase that takes on a different meaning than one might assume from reading the words at face value. When someone who isn’t familiar with the phrase “the last straw” hears it, they might assume that there’s only one drinking straw left in the box at a fast food restaurant. You might be the lucky one because anyone else who orders a drink may not have a straw to drink with.

That’s the literal meaning of the phrase. But idioms rarely involve literal meanings.

It started with a feather and a horse

The first known use of a form of this idiom dates back to the second half of the 17th century. Wikipedia tells us it came from a theological debate by Thomas Hobbes and John Bramhall.

Hobbes wrote:

The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, is not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet may be said to produce the Effect necessarily, in such Manner as the last Feather may be said to break a Horses Back, when there were so many laid on before as there want but that one to do it.

Thomas Hobbes

How could a feather possibly break a horse’s back? Well, if it’s the last one, then you can assume it’s no the first one. If there were only a single feather involved, you wouldn’t need first or last as a qualifier.

The implication, then, is that the weight of many, many feathers eventually becomes too much for the poor horse.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

A related idiom — probably an older one — refers to a camel instead of a horse. The Arabian proverb tells us “It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

It is another way of saying essentially the same thing: It’s not the weight of one item but the cumulative weight of many problems that are too much for the camel. As The Free Dictionary put it, ” it alludes to the idea that a single piece of straw could cause an overladen camel to finally collapse.”

That brings us to the real meaning of ‘the last straw’

Originally, it wasn’t about a drinking straw, but rather a piece of straw as in dried grass. But either one is fine, honestly. That’s because neither a drinking straw nor a piece of straw weigh very much at all.

And that’s the whole point.

Presumably, that one extra straw comes after many other weights have already been placed. The individual straw isn’t a problem. But the weight of one more on top of all the others becomes the one we can no longer handle.

I hope you aren’t near your own last straw in any part of life!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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