Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dire Straits

Larry asked, “Where do we get the expression dire straights?”

It’s a frequent misconception that the second word is spelled straight. I’ve also seen this in the phrase a straight jacket. There’s nothing straight about it in these cases. It should be spelled strait.

Strait came from estreit, an Old French word that meant tight, close, or narrow. In turn, that evolved from the Latin word strictus, which meant drawn together, close-knit, tight, or narrow.

In 1387, strait was used to describe a tight-fitting garment. By 1561, it referred to a constraining knot. As time went on, limited or constricted was the predominant meaning, leading to the idea of difficult. We find it in Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” [KJV]

It became applied to a narrow waterway, often with a plural spelling treated as a singular: The Straits of Hormuz.

Dire came from the Latin dirus -- fearful, awful, portentous, or ill-boding. In time, it took on shades of unpleasant or frightful. By now, dire straits is considered a cliché.

SIDEBAR: Dire Straits, the band

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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