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