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Is there any distinction between "pull from under the rug" and "leave in the lurch"? What separates them? I've scoured some online dictionaries, but I fail to see the difference.

For example, The Free Dictionary defines

pull the rug (out) from under (someone): "to suddenly or unexpectedly remove or rescind support, help, or assistance from someone; to abruptly leave someone in a problematic or difficult situation".

It defines

leave (one) in the lurch: "to leave or abandon one without assistance in a particularly awkward, difficult, or troublesome situation."

These idioms seem the same to me in meaning. Likewise, I've looked at some examples.

"Pull the rug from under":

  • "I felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under me when my health insurance said it was going to stop paying for my medical bills."
  • "I'd love to quit my job, but I just can't pull the rug from under my team like that."

"Leave in the lurch":

  • "I'll really be left in the lurch if the manager decides to quit before this project is finished."
  • "Janet was left in a lurch organizing her kid's birthday party when her husband decided to go on a weekend getaway with his friends."

In each of these examples, pull the rug from under and leave in the lurches refer to a situation wherein someone is left to fend for himself/herself.

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    Both phrases seem to convey the same meaning. You could argue that the first is about withdrawing help and the other is about not giving promised help but there are contradictory examples online.
    – dubious
    May 25 at 8:59
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    Note that it's always in the lurch, never 'lurches' in the plural. May 25 at 12:26
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    "Pulling the rug out from under" has a literal meaning that "leave in the lurch" does not.
    – Hot Licks
    May 25 at 17:57
  • For the full set, you could add "throwing under the bus" which is potentially an even more direct action than pulling the rug.
    – Tetsujin
    May 27 at 8:43

7 Answers 7

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You correctly define them both - and I am a little surprised that you have not spotted the slightly different circumstances in which each might be used. Though the examples you give do seem to suggest you have a grasp of the difference.

The former involves taking away an existing support base - i.e. the rug. The other focuses more on not providing some help, where it might have been expected, resulting in the other party being left in a difficult situation.

There may well be considerable overlap, and circumstances where both may apply.

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    Pulling the rug often implies a deliberate decision has been made to withdraw support, while you can be left in the lurch either deliberately or without someone making a conscious decision.
    – Andy M
    May 25 at 14:40
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    Pull the rug also implies that it was very sudden, whereas being left in the lurch implies a passive neglect - deliberate or otherwise.
    – Zibbobz
    May 26 at 14:04
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    The difference is causation: both end up with the victim in trouble, but if you yanked out the rug, you actively caused their trouble, whereas if you left them in the lurch, the trouble might not be your fault. (Or it might be, but in a passive way.)
    – Marthaª
    May 26 at 21:22
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You can apologize (sincerely) for leaving somebody in the lurch. As a mentor "Sorry I left you in the lurch at the meeting. My train got stuck for an hour in a mobile phone no-spot because of a signals failure."

Pulling the rug is a deliberate action. An unforced apology is most unlikely and a forced one is almost certainly insincere.

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'Pull' in this usage is the common punctive (hence 'suddenly or unexpectedly') usage. The rug needs yanking to remove it from underneath a person. It's also a dynamic verb, and causative (bringing about change, here in circumstances).

'Leave', although one cannot rule out the punctive reading, focuses mainly on the resulting state (abandonment) ... 'in the lurch'. The agent is less prominent, perhaps slinking away into the shadows of non-involvement from now on.

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"Is there any difference?"

Yes. To "pull the rug out from under" someone is when the withdrawal of support is actively destructive. Leaving someone in the lurch is not.

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Pulling the rug is active malice. Leave in the lurch has a much wider range of motivations, from schadenfreude to an earnest, but failed, attempt to help, but in any case is not the result of active actions.

Pulling the rug is an act of sabotage, leaving in the lurch is just refusing to help.

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I would describe the difference this way. When you leave someone in the lurch, typically there was a short-term high-pressure situation where they were expecting your help, and you did not provide it. Notice how the two examples have high-pressure situations -- a project deadline and a birthday party.

By contrast, usually when you talk about someone getting the rug pulled out from under them, there was no other crisis. They expected things to be normal, and suddenly support vanishes. With the health insurance example, that's a loss of needed help, but it's not associated to a task the person was responsible for. With the work team, it was work that they are responsible for, but there's no suggestion of a particular high-pressure situation like a deadline.

I actually have mental images for these two situations. When someone literally has the rug pulled out from under them, they suddenly fall down. If they were on camera, they might drop out of view entirely. When someone is left in the lurch, I picture them in front of a crowd of people ready to give a speech, but someone else was supposed to give them the text (or something like that) and never showed up. Both of these are meant to be taken metaphorically, but the second one could be a literal example.

To be fair, these absolutely do overlap. If you use the "rug" expression, you are not for sure saying there was no special high pressure situation, you just aren't saying there was one.

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EFL teacher here.

An important point to note is that it is not plural. You leave someone in the lurch, not the lurches. (I have no idea what the lurch is).

I would naturally say 'pull the rug out from under me', but that may be an Irish usage. To me, that is a sudden, unexpected action, often carrying with it a connotation of disappointment or embarrassment.

'My boss pulled the rug out from under me when he announced at a meeting that John had been promoted above me. I wish he'd warned me'.

'I was supposed to be picked up at 8 am, but my Uber driver left me in the lurch'.

'Left in the lurch' does not, to me, carry the potential for office politics or machinations that 'pull the rug' does.

Another important note is that you would not usually use either expression about yourself. 'I pulled the rug out from under him' sounds odd, whereas 'I wiped the smile off his face/softened his cough' doesn't. I would never say 'I left him in the lurch'. It's an odd admission to make.

('I softened his cough' is Hiberno-English).

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    I can imagine using I left you in the lurch in the context of an admission of fault or apology - 'I'm so sorry I forgot to pick you up this morning, I must really have left you in the lurch there.'
    – nekomatic
    May 26 at 12:18
  • Lurch in this case is poised to fall over. The definite article implies a singular level of severity, as in there are no other states of "lurch-ness" that can be mis-identified with this one, and all other states have a lower concentration and thus can be considered derivative or watered-down. May 26 at 12:45
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    Lurch in this case is a cribbage term, originating from the old French game lourche. britannica.com/topic/lurch May 27 at 10:16

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