Was it the last straw that broke the camel's back? (and other questions from expressions)

Was it the last straw that broke the camel's back? (and other questions from expressions)
Source: Reusableart.com

Do you ever hear the expression “That’s the last straw”? Or do you know someone following a problem who wants to know whether “That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back”? What if they’re the same straw?

I want to collect pairs or sets of expressions like that. I’ve been on the lookout for them since I found some British writers who expressed skepticism by writing “Pull the other leg, it’s got bells on!” instead of just saying “You’re pulling my leg.” Sometimes it was “Go on, pull the other one.”

Sometimes I wonder if it’s a regional thing, like whether you call your carbonated beverages pop, soda, or fizz. (Personally, if I say yes to a soda, fair warning — I will expect ice cream.)

Other times, I think it must be involved with our national senses of humor, or at least of what phrases are funny. Some of my favorite memories of watching TV with my parents involved the British comedy “As Time Goes By,” in which Geoffrey Palmer and Judi Dench portrayed a couple in love — after a gap of 38 years when they didn’t see each other.

Instead of saying that he’d do something “When pigs fly!,” Lionel Hardcastle (Palmer) stopped in an argument with Jean Pargeter (Dench) to say “What was that?”

Jean could only ask “What was what?”

“I thought I saw a pig fly past the window,” Lionel replied. That’s so much fresher than just saying “When pigs fly,” and it has the added advantage of confusing an opponent.

Feel free to add your own questions or suggestions as comments. We’ll see what matches up.

Filed under: Expressions


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  • If you're a patient person you might say "That's the next to the last straw."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Ah, that's lovely. Thank you! If I get especially erudite, I'd say it's the penultimate straw.

  • The straw that broke the camel's back is the last straw. You wouldn't add more straws once the camel's back is broken, and if you're adding more than one straw at a time, you wouldn't be talking about a single straw.

    Now, if you meant "straw" as a group of individual straws, so that the straw that broke the camel's back was the last (bale?) added, then you might make a difference between the "last straw" and the straw that broke . . . .

    You could even use the straw-as-a-group-label to say that "the last straw" was not necessarily a single straw, too, I suppose. Still, both sayings have always been used in the single-straw context to show a serious consequence to a light or minor repetitive transgression, so I think we can dispense with the straw-as-a-label-for-a-baleful argument.

    I do not subscribe to literary deconstructionism, and now you know why.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    Thanks for the confirmation, Grundoon. I don't care for deconstructionism either, but I wasn't going quite so far -- I was just trying to look for a less-cliched expression.

    You remind me of when my dad used to calm me down about wondering "Why is it always in the last place I look?"

    He replied, "Do you keep looking after you find it?"

  • My puzzling idiom: "by and by." I know it means "eventually," but why? To me, the "last straw" at least suggests the fable of the small increment that eventually causes a collapse. But "by and by" suggests nothing, even though it is enduring.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    That's a good one, jnorto. Watch this space. I've often wondered whether the idiom referred to by two places. Will look into that and why... when? By and by, of course.

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