Etymology in dire straits

A very common mistake, and source of linguistic misinformation being passed around, is the assumption that because A resembles some apparently older B, B must be the source of A. Such resemblances are suggestive and worth investigating further, of course, but without a historical record, you can’t say A comes from B – and if the historical record pretty clearly indicates something else, then it undermines the initial hunch. It’s true that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when there’s sufficient contradictory evidence, the absence of evidence does gain some weight. (And, as historical linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) At the very least, as the likelihood narrows, your appealing account is in increasingly dire straits.

I’m listening to some Dire Straits right now, not by coincidence. I decided to play them after being forwarded this account:

SOMETHING FUN TO KNOW!

The Origins of the phrase “In Dire Straits”

In Hebrew “The Three Weeks” is also referred to as Bein ha-Metzarim (בין המצרים), or “Between the Straits” or “In Dire Straits”. It is based onLamentations 1:3: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.” Thus, when you next hear someome refer to being “in dire straits” you’ll know it comes from the exile of Jews from Israel.

What are “The Three Weeks”? I’ll get into that at the end. But first, let’s dive into some dire straits.

The phrase in dire straits – or even just the two words dire straits – is not to be found in the Bible; the passage quoted from Lamentations is one of two uses of dire in the King James Bible (which gives us most of our quotable terms from the Bible), the other being in Job 20:22, “In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: ever hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” Thus a translation of the Hebrew phrase into in dire straits is one using an idiom seemingly not traceable to an English translation of the Bible. Quotes from Shakespeare are often confused with Biblical quotes, but the only use of straits in Shakespeare is from As You Like It, act V scene iii: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” The word straits (plural) doesn’t appear in Bartlett’s Quotations at all! Dire shows up 22 times in Shakespeare but not once in the King James Bible. Its first appearance in English, mutated from Latin dirus, is in the mid-1500s, and it caught on as a useful adjective. Likewise, as we see, straits and in straits and in a strait (and even great straits and desperate straits) were long used figuratively – since the mid-1500s also, in fact. But they don’t show up together until much more recently.

Google ngrams graphs the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. According to a newspaper column from 2000, the first use of dire straits together that can be dug up in anything recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.” But Google Books takes us back a bit farther, giving several hits in the decades around 1900. It finds it in an article about Paganini from 1892; there is one from the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890: “He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still”; there is one from the story “A Masai Adventure” by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888: “he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.” Even then, the phrase seems established.

The earliest hit I can find goes all the way back to the 1700s: the (long) epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780, which has at lines 719–720 “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.” This is clearly a literal use! But could have been a seed for later figurative uses if some of the authors had been educated in the classics in translation. But I can’t find it in a search through a fairly good corpus of English fiction books (novels and collected stories) from 1710 through 1920. It seems to have gained some momentum for a reason uncertain to me in the early 1900s; the Roosevelt speech no doubt helped at least some. The first time the phrase shows up in the Hansard (transcribed debates) of the British Parliament is 1884, and its use accelerates slowly: 1 hit in the 1890s, 2 in the next decade, 5 in the 1910s, 12 in the 1920s, 19 in the 1930s, 14 in the 1940s. There’s no sharp jump as we might expect if it showed up in a single important source.

The term, anyway, according to the Google ngram, rose in usage through the 1900s, peaking in the 1930s and holding fairly steady, but then it started to climb again in the early 1980s… which is when the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene (they were formed in 1977 and had their first hit – “Sultans of Swing” – in 1978, but they became really huge starting in 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations, one of which for Best New Artist). Usage of the term dire straits has been climbing ever since, even as the band Dire Straits has subsided from charts somewhat.

Now for that Hebrew phrase: בין המצרים (bein hamitsrayim) names the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz through roughly the ninth of Av, The Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples, a time of solemnity for observant Jews. I like Wikipedia’s commentary:

The Three Weeks are historically a time of misfortune, since many tragedies and calamities befell the Jewish people at this time. These tragedies include: the breaking of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; the burning of a Sefer Torah by Apostomus during the Second Temple era; the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain shortly before Tisha B’Av 1492; and the outbreak of World War I shortly before Tisha B’Av 1914, which overturned many Jewish communities.

But while Wikipedia puts in a “cf ‘dire straits’” next to the literal “Between the Straits” translation, it just links to the Wiktionary definition. There is no evidence I can find that links the term dire straits historically to this period; the connection appears to be a modern one, made readily enough once the phrase dire straits was common. We don’t much use the term straits outside of names and figures of speech anymore, so when we see it in one place (Between the Straits), it’s unsurprising if we connect it to another common collocation (dire straits). It just doesn’t happen to be the origin as far as the historical evidence I can find goes.

By the way, בין המצרים is, I find, also translatable as “among the Egyptians”: בין (bein) means ‘between, among, amid’; ה (ha) is ‘the’; מצרים (mitsrayim) is ‘Egypt’ – Wiktionary points out that the name of Egypt has a dual ending (–im) perhaps because Egypt was formerly two realms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and it says “Connections have also been drawn to מֶצֶר ‎(métser, “border, limit”) and מיצר \ מֵצַר ‎(meitsár, “sea strait”).” Still, the closest to Egyptians that dire straits seems to come is the Sultans of Swing.

6 responses to “Etymology in dire straits

  1. About Hebrew Mitsrayim & Arabic Misr (Egypt)

    It is interesting that the consonants in “straits” read/sound the same when read/pronounced forwards or backwards.
    In Hebrew, tzadi-resh TSaR means narrow. Misr/Mitsrayim is so-named because it is the narrow waist on a Phoenician anthropomorphic map of Aphrodite (Afro-deity / Astarte) in North Africa.
    The toponym Egypt is an internal body part derived from Greek hepato- (liver) as in hepatitis (Russian gepatit).
    For a more complete illustration of this anthropomorphic map, download these files from the public folder of my Dropbox:
    Anthropomorphic Maps docx Word file
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/My_Books/Anthropomorphic_Maps.docx
    Anthropomorphic Maps slide show
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/My_Books/Anthropomorphic_Maps.pptx
    Aphrodite Map 6-verse limerick with side-notes
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/My_Books/Aphrodite_Map_pics.doc

    Ciao, Israel “Izzy” Cohen
    Moderator, BPMaps discussion group
    https://beta.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/BPMaps/info

  2. Enjoyed your research here. It makes me think of all the peculiar expressions we have taken into our daily speech. The one that I find funniest, if I stop to parse it, is to “wait with baited breath”. Sounds like a bad case of fish mouth. I like to think it is “breath abated”, but who knows? Thanks for the enjoyable, and interesting read!

    • “With bated breath” (no i) is a phrase apparently first published in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whisp’ring humbleness”), from which it has caught on more broadly. The adjective bated is from the verb bate, which is just a trimmed-down form of abate, as you speculate.

  3. It’s “bated breath”. (You can check both options on ngram viewer if you have any doubts.

    • Of course sesquiotic and adaddinsane are historically correct about the spelling, and the Ngram Viewer does show a much higher usage of “bated breath” rather than “baited breath”. But the Ngram Viewer is based on a corpus of books. If you do a simple Google search for these terms, the results are 551,000 for “bated breath” and 424,000 for “baited breath”. That is a ratio of only 1.3 to 1.0 in favor of “bated breath.”

      This indicates that Michael Quinion is correct when he says “…but it’s so common these days to see it written as ‘baited breath’ that there’s every chance that it will soon become the usual form,…” Quinion ended his analysis with “… ‘baited breath’ evokes an incongruous image; Geoffrey Taylor humorously (and consciously) captured it in verse in his poem ‘Cruel Clever Cat’:
      Sally, having swallowed cheese,
      Directs down holes the scented breeze,
      Enticing thus with baited breath
      Nice mice to an untimely death.”

  4. I appreciated the story; thank you for taking the time to write it out.

    regards,
    -j

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