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‘grasping at straws’ vs. ‘clutching at straws’

Some sustain that the phrase “grasping at straws” has overtaken that of “clutching at straws”. I read that the former is American while the latter is British.

The American English definition is

trying to find some way to succeed when nothing you choose is likely to work

while the British definition is slightly different

to be willing to try anything to improve a difficult or unsatisfactory situation, even if it has little chance of success

Oxford Living Dictionaries offer a more apocalyptic interpretation

clutch (or grasp or catch) at straws
Be in such a desperate situation as to resort to even the most unlikely means of salvation.

“catchest a stick”

The phrase is attributed to Sir Thomas More who used the metaphor in A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, 1534

A man in peril of drowning catchest whatsoever cometh next to hand... be it never so simple a stick.

“catch at every straw”

The version with straw surfaced some fifty years later in John Prime's Fruitful and Brief Discourse

We do not as men redie to be drowned, catch at euery straw

The straw version was used throughout the 18th and 19th century, and both American and British writers (and speakers) continued to use the dramatic metaphor of a drowning man fighting for his life. The following citations are taken from the Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1977)

1733 Belcher Papers 1.496:

I see the party are still willing (as drowning men) to catch at straws or firebrands.

1758 Franklin Papers 8.75:

This seems like a drowning Man catching at a Straw.

1771 New York Journal in Newspaper Extracts (I) 8.401:

…like a drowning Man, willing to catch at a Straw.

1802 Chester Federalism 19:

The adage of “a drowning man's catching at straws.”

The British author Samuel Richardson in 1748 wrote

A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says

The phrase appears in Charles Dickens' Household Words - Volume 9, page 529, 1853, who quotes

“The drowning man catches at the straw. With no disrespect for your judgment, and with no doubt of your sincerity, excuse my saying that I cling to the belief that there is yet hope that I am not condemned to perpetual exile from that lady's presence.”

The English novelist, Mrs. Henry Wood, in her 1863 The Shadow of Ashlydyat, used the metaphor to great effect

“I am engaged,” replied George, catching at the excuse like a drowning man catching at a straw. “That is” — taking out his watch — “I have not time now to see him. Tell Lord Averil I am particularly engaged.”

[…]

Did he think Lord Averil would never favour Prior's Ash with his presence again? It is hard to say what foolish thing he thought. A man, drowning by water, does catch at straws: and a man, drowning by evil fortunes, catches at fantasies equally frail and hopeless.


As can be seen above, American and British English both used the verb "catch" in the metaphor of a drowning man. But at some point in the late 19th century or early 20th century, the man stopped drowning, and the verb “catch” was replaced with “clutch” in the UK, while “grasp” was preferred in the US.

Questions

  • When did this division, more or less, occur?
  • Why was/is “grasped” preferred in the US? Does the BrEng verb “clutch” have different connotations or meaning?
  • When did the drowning stop? In other words, in which year was the phrase first shortened?

Related: What does "clutching at straws" mean?

word or phrase for pursuing a losing argument in a certain manner

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – waiwai933 Aug 28 '17 at 8:37
  • In addition to "catching", "clutching" and "grasping", there are examples back to at least 1890 of "grabbing at straws" and later "reaching for straws". – DavePhD Aug 29 '17 at 19:57
  • There are so many different variations, ways to phrase the idea. "It is no maruaile, that Bellarmine (like a man readie to be drowned) taketh hold of euery straw for his reliefe." Mystical Babylon 1624 – DavePhD Aug 30 '17 at 13:01
  • "but the case of Physicians as yet is not so desperate, as that to prevent sinking they should grasp at small rotten sticks and straws to be their treacherous support" Vindiciæ medicinæ & medicorum 1666 – DavePhD Aug 30 '17 at 13:18
  • "as a drowning Man, that grasps a Twig or Straw, though to no purpose" Demonologia sacra, or, A treatise of Satan's temptations in three parts 1677 – DavePhD Aug 30 '17 at 13:19
5
+150

OED suggests an evolving meaning of the word "catch." Particularly, we can zoom in on the sense related to catching an object in the air (sense 24).

To seize or intercept (anything) in its passing through the air, or in falling.

The sense's earliest attestation is from 1589, but it is still in common use today.

Compare this sense of the word catch with sense 23:

to catch at: to snatch at; to make a quick or eager attempt to lay hold of; often fig. (Also with indirect passive.)

"To catch at" in this sense seems to be the use that was originally applied to straws, prior to the split between "clutch" (BrE) and "grasp" (AmE). Unlike catching an object out of the air, which is still in modern use, the "catch at" sense is attested most recently in 1782. Though it's not marked as "obsolete" by OED, and the construction certainly persisted in the form of this expression, it seems to be antiquated.

Catching at his rein.

  • William Cowper · The diverting history of John Gilpin · 1782

Judging by the antiquation of the "catching at" construction, it seems to make sense that the idiom would adjust in wording to adapt to the tongues of contemporary speakers. Searching for early uses of the various forms, I came upon several uses of the "catch" construction that use the word "grasp" to emphasize, and possibly to modernize or explain, the expression. This seems relevant to the eventual evolution to "grasping at straws."

And is it possible, that for such paltry and pitiful objects, you will culminate the Government of your country, and a great majority of your fellow-citizens?--It is possible--it is certain--drowning men, says the proverb catch at straws--a sinking party, says observation, grasps at every thing that affords a shadow of support.

In their despair, they caught at every straw--an awful grasp it was to them--it will not save them--the shadow of political death is coming upon them.

On the whole, the candid reader, will certainly be apt to think that the men who can make no better defences than those which have lately appeared in the court gazette, are in almost as bad a situation as this writer represents the authors... That they have not a plank left to stand on, that they are catching at straws, but that even those straws elude their grasp, and that they are sinking, never to rise.

The earliest direct use of "grasping at straws" that I could find was from around this period, in 1811, and placed the word "grasping" in italics, suggesting perhaps that the writer was aware of the unusual use of the word in a proverbial construction that usually used the word "caught," "catch," or "catching."

As to what he says respecting the meaning of the expression "Image of the son of God," and conformity to that image, it is really so weak, so fanciful, so far-fetched, so destitute of foundation, and so much like the graspings of a drowning man at a straw, that I feel no disposition to make a single remark on it. [Bold emphasis mine]

This explanation so far focuses only on the American structure, "grasping at straws," but I believe the combination of dating evidence in OED regarding the construction "to catch at," in combination with the appearance of "grasping at straws" decades after the latest attestation of "to catch at" suggests to me that the replacement of "catching" with "grasping" likely occurred to replace an antiquated construction. For whatever reason, "clutching" or "grasping" became more appropriate contemporary words for "attempting to hold on to something," while "catching" was increasingly associated with catching a ball (or anything in mid-air).


Clutching vs. Grasping

NGram searches, if we're to believe them, seem to confirm the suggestion that "clutch at straws" rose to greater prominence in British English, whereas "grasp at straws" flourished in the United States.

American English with "grasp at straws" ahead

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British English with "clutch at straws" narrowly ahead

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There could be many explanations for this difference, so I can only speculate. My best hypothesis is that the construction "clutch at" meaning " to make an eager effort to seize" might have been a uniquely British sense of the word "clutch" in the 19th century, around the time that "catch at" was fading out of use apart from the uses in this expression.

OED defines this as sense 6 of clutch.

To make a clutch at, to make an eager effort to seize.

It is attested in 1834, 1860, and 1868, all in British publications. Apart from OED's attestations of the "clutch at" construction in British sources, I can't find much evidence pointing to a correlation for the phrase "clutch at" without the full expression, "clutch at straws."

Still, perhaps this sense of "clutch" was in fact often used in BrE, and took over for "catch" in England while "grasp" took its place in the U.S.

  • Any ideas as to why "grasping" was preferred than that of "clutching" are the two verbs not interchangeable? – Mari-Lou A Aug 30 '17 at 10:00
  • I think in general to grasp at is to try to grab ahold of something, and clutch is more focused on the holding part of the process, after you've gotten the thing in your hand. But I confess I haven't looked them up. – aparente001 Aug 30 '17 at 19:09
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An early example of the shortened version of the phrase, without reference to drowning, is in the 1674 Saints memorials, or, Words fitly spoken, like apples of gold in pictures of silver being a collection of divine sentences

Man hath lost his way, since he lost his eyes; poor man catcheth at every straw, grasps every trifle.

(interestingly, both "catcheth" and "grasp" are being used with the same meaning)

Also the 1704 A Collection of Voyages and Travels, at page xv:

But there is nothing solid in this argument, it is only catching at straws, when all history and practice of former ages make against it.

Also, beyond just leaving out the "drowning" aspect, there are examples of providing an alternative.

From the 1831 Particulars of an Overland Journey from London to Bombay there is:

like a falling man, catching at straws

Also, the November 1907 Lutheran Pioneer has an article Grasping at Straws that specifically describes grasping to prevent falling down an embankment.

  • Any ideas as to why "grasp" is preferred in the US instead of "clutch"? – Mari-Lou A Aug 30 '17 at 9:57
  • @Mari-LouA not yet – DavePhD Aug 30 '17 at 11:04
  • @Mari-LouA searching US newspapers 1789-1925, there are hundreds of examples of "clutching at straws" (as well as "catching at straws", "grasping at straws", "grabbing at straws" and "reaching for straws"). chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/results/… Any convergence on "grasping" is more recent. It think Americans do say "clutching to straws", they just don't say "clutching at". – DavePhD Aug 30 '17 at 11:49

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