Where did the term the last straw originate?

Was it something to do with rations in a war or what was it?

  • 6
    It might have to do with "the straw that broke the camel's back," as in, the last straw one can place on a camel before it breaks its back, as idiomatic to say "that was the final thing that broke this situation and now I'm/you're/he's/she's/they're upset." – psosuna Aug 9 '19 at 23:49
  • I'm pretty sure this question has appeared before, but I can't find it. – Hot Licks Aug 10 '19 at 2:38
  • google.com/… – user121863 Aug 10 '19 at 4:56
  • Research please! – marcellothearcane Aug 10 '19 at 14:04
  • @HotLicks It appears in an answer. – Andrew Leach Aug 10 '19 at 14:38

Origin and sense of 'the last straw'

Christine Ammer has this interesting entry for the expression in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

last straw, the The final annoyance or setback, which even though minor makes one lose patience. [Example omitted.] This term is a shortening of the straw that broke the camel's back, which conveys a vivid image of an overloaded animal being given one slight additional weight. The expression dates from the mid-1800s, and replaced the earlier the last feather that breaks the horse's back.

The expression may well be of British origin. In an Elephind search of U.S. and Australian newspaper databases the earliest three matches for "the last straw" are all from Australian newspapers—albeit in three distinctly different senses.

From "Tobacco," in the Sydney [New South Wales] Herald (October 19, 1841), we have an example where "the last straw" is the last remaining straw in a gradually dwindling daily portion of feed for a horse:

Even the Hippocratic doctrine of gradual change will not always avail. It is related in the witticisms of Hieracles of Alexandria, that a certain genius (σχολαστικος) took it into his head to teach his horse to live on one straw, and he immediately began to make the experiment by withdrawing a portion of the horse's provender every day, until he brought the poor subject of his avarice to the last straw, when he died ; and this philosopher, who was master of but one idea, complained that just as he had completed the experiment, the horse, disliking the abstinence system, cantered off to the Elysian Fields.

From a letter to the editor of the [Sydney, New South Wales] Australian, we have an example of "the last straw" as the last hope to be grasped at by a (figuratively) drowning man:

Poor Joseph [Cope], your cause is now nearly desperate, the last expiring hope you cherished is nearly extinguished ; in grasping; at the shadow, you have lost the substance; and like a drowning man you are now grasping at the last straw, left as a forlorn hope for you and your political coterie, to prevent your immersion. in the abyss of confusion and disappointment.

Use of "the last straw" first appears in the Elephind database in its current idiomatic sense in "Rumours of More Extravagance," in the Launceston [Tasmania] Examiner (September 20, 1843):

There is however, a trite but a true saying, "The last straw will break the camel's back;" and, verily, if ever there was a time when the rulers of this country ought to look ahead, it is the present.

The expression also appears in Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son" serialized in the New York Daily Tribune (October 29, 1846):

As the last straw breaks the laden camel's back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr. Dombey.

It would be hard to find a more effective popularizer of phrases in the English-speaking world in the 1840s than Dickens. The expression had appeared in print at least since 1799, however. From "On the Origin and Progress of Taxation," in The Scots Magazine (April 1799):

Let it not, however, be inferred that taxation cannot be pushed too far : it is, as the Oriental proverb says, the last straw that overloads the camel ; a small addition, if ill-timed, may overturn the whole.

Did the camel's 'last straw' begin as the horse's 'last feather'?

In checking Ammer's allusion to an earlier expression involving feathers and horses, I found at least one instance involving straw and horses. From "The Same Subject {'Of Liberty and Necessity'} Continued," (January 12, 1722), in Anonymous, Cato's Letters; Or, Essay on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other, fourth edition (1737):

Every thing must be at Rest which has no Force to impel it : but as the last Straw breaks the Horse's Back, or a single Sand will turn the Beam of Scales which hold Weights as heavy as the World; so, without doubt, as minute Causes may determine the actions of Men, which neither others nor they themselves are sensible of.

As for "the last feather," two early instances of that expression appear in Thomas Hobbs, "Of Liberty and Necessity" (1646):

The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, ids not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet it may be said to produce the Effect necessarily, in such Manner as the last Feather may be said to break a Horses Back, when there were so many laid on before as there wanted but that one to do it. >...

Now if it be understood in that Sence, the last Dictate of the Understanding does necessitate the Action, though not as the whole Cause, yet as the last Cause, as the last Feather necessitates the Breaking of a Horse's Back, when there are so many laid on before, as they needed but the Addition of One to make the Weight sufficient.

It is possible that at some English speakers simply exoticized the last feather that breaks the horse's back as the last straw that breaks the camel's back; or they may have imported the latter expression into English from (as The Scots Magazine puts it) an "Oriental proverb" that was already in widespread use in another language.

On the other hand, the transition from feathers to straw may have occurred while the beast of burden was still a horse, under the influence of usage of "the last straw" in the context of inadequate provender and/or a drowning person's desperate attempt to stay above water.

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It might have to do with "the straw that broke the camel's back," as in, the last straw one can place on a camel before it breaks its back, as idiomatic to say "that was the final thing that broke this situation and now I'm/you're/he's/she's/they're upset." – psosuna

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