The term "high and dry" has always confused me. As in the case provided by the Merriam Webster online dictionary:

The inadequate supplies of vaccine left many people high and dry when the flu season arrived.

I understand the meaning of the term, to be outside of the area of help, but I don't understand how this expression came to be used for such a situation. Where does this expression originate from? How did it come to mean what it means today?

3 Answers 3


The answer is available at phrases.org.uk.

This term originally referred to ships that were beached. The 'dry' implies that, not only were they out of the water, but had been for some time and could be expected to remain so. It was used in a 'Ship News' column in The [London] Times, August 1796:

"The Russian frigate Archipelago, yesterday got aground below the Nore at high water, which; when the tide had ebbed, left her nearly high and dry."

  • Neatly answered with a reference I hadn't considered. Thank you! And yes, I had failed to include the word 'meaning' in my own search.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 18:18
  • Without context of the phrase origin, "high and dry" may seem positive; thinking of a flood, buying a plot of land, or walking somewhere. However, considering "high and dry" comes from the context of sailing ships, the phrase is considered negative. Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 13:08

The term has been around longer, though I am not able to trace it back any further than 1654 by Jacob van Oudenhovens. In Dutch the term in those days was "hoogh ende droogh", which was generally used for all places that the sea didn't reach.

In Europe the sea has always been a big factor and with regular floods since ages back "high and dry" was a way of live. The terpen in the North European Plain are a reminder of those days.

  • Here is an English example of "keep to the high and dry", used metaphorically, showing that it can also reflect the idea of confident safety. From Harpers New Monthly,Vol 36, p808, 1867-68 - books.google.com/books/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 21:54

The OED's first quotation is 1822 but I found an antedating almost a century earlier. It appears in A new account of the East Indies: being the observations and Remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton (1727, Volume 1, page 254):

And the Virgin Mary, to shew her Kindness, and Skill in Navigation, stood a whole Night on the Forecastle, directing the Devil how he mould steer, and behold, to the great Admiration of all concerned, the Ship was high and dry in the Morning, in a Valley on the South Side of the River of Goa, about half a Mile within the land.

I'll include the full section as it's quite a tale.

But if any incredulous Heretick should be squeamish and cannot swallow the Story of Xavier without chewing it I will tell them

of another that doubtless will go glibly down At a certain Time but God knows when Ship of Portugal coming to India got Length of Cabo de bona Esperanza and met with such a violent Storm that the Ship so violently before it that it past the Pilot's Skill to keep her to Rights her Course and who should come to Assistance in that critical Juncture but Diabolo who took the Helm and it very dextroufly And the Virgin Mary Ihew her Kindness and Skill in Navigation stood a whole Night on the Forecastle directing the Devil how he mould steer and behold to the great Admiration of all concerned the Ship was high and dry in the Morning in a Valley on the South Side of the River of Goa about half a Mile within the Land The Ship sailed very well for that one Night Ihe ran according to a moderate Computation 1500 Leagues And in Commemoration of this Miracle there is a fine Church built where the Ship anchored so safely and the Structure is just the Length Breadth and Height of the Ship The Church I have often seen as I past up and down the River And this Story is so firmly believed at Goa that it is dangerous to make any Doubt of it Z54 A new Account

The church is A Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Ajuda (or The Church of Our Lady of Help) in Ribandar, on the banks of the Goa river.

The Ribandar website tells the same tale:

The Church of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda (Our Lady of Help), which is situated at a little distance from the hospital, makes up Ribandar's important landmark of all. A legend claims that the church owes its construction to the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary, to save a Portuguese ship which was caught in the eye of a terrible storm at the Arabian Sea. The Virgin Mary herself is said to have stood on the forecastle throughout that fateful night, directing the devil (!) himself to steer the ship to safety. To commemorate the miracle the beautiful church stands where that ship had found a safe mooring, the edifice being just the length, breadth and height of the legendary ship.

Finally, here's a photo of the church's ship on wheels.

  • 1
    I've sent the antedating to the OED.
    – Hugo
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 12:51

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