Did someone use the phrase the ‘straw that broke the camel's back' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.
The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ is an idiom that refers to the final small burden that pushes a difficult situation into the realm of the unbearable. Essentially, the idea is that a minor action can produce a sudden and significant reaction due to the aggregate of many small actions.
You will also hear the following phrases with the same meaning:
Here are some examples:
When you try to picture what the idiom is describing, the phrase starts to make more sense. A camel is a strong animal, and a straw is a very light object. However, enough pieces of straw could create an outcome where one tiny piece of straw actually leads the creature to collapse.
For example, let’s say that one day your car breaks down when you’re driving to work. Normally a fairly relaxed person, you don’t usually let this type of thing get to you. However, on this particular week, you’ve also dealt with a health problem, a conflict in your family, and issues at work.
Because of the way that all of these different problems are compounding, your car breaking down “pushes you over the edge.” In this example, your car breaking down is the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, this idiom comes from a mid-17th-century proverb. The earliest version of this phrase does appear in the mid-1600s on a theological date between Thomas Hobbes and John Bramhall:
“The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, is not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet 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 want but that one to do it.”
Another early example of the phrase in print appears in The Edinburgh Advertiser from May 1816:
"MR. BROUGHAM remarked, that if it [a tax on soap] were only 3d. a head, or 4d. and 5d. upon the lower orders, yet straw upon straw was laid till the last straw broke the camel's back."
In Miss Macauley’s First Letter to the King from 1833, we find the following passage:
“There is an Oriental proverb, my liege, which tells us, “It was the last feather which broke the camel’s back.” In this, like most other proverbs, there is something very expressive, and not inappropriate to the present times. We may compare this nation to the camel. Its back has long been bowed by the ponderous load of grievances pressed upon it.”
The idiom also appears in an 1838 document from the Constitutional Convention in Pennsylvania:
“He was entirely opposed to this amendment, and to the system pursued of building up amendments on this section. It was this grain of wheat which broke the camel’s back before, and he hoped it would not do the same thing again.”
For a third example, we find the phrase again in an 1862 issue of Once a Week:
“Dinner was postponed that we might have a double allowance of marching drill; and this was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Several of the fellows ran round the division saying that we must not turn out on parage. So when the bugle sounded, over 200 did not turn out, but soon after when the officer sent in to ask us to come out, we did.”
Though this idiom appears to have originated in the mid-1700s, there are some possible antecedents that stretch further back in history.
The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ is a phrase that shares similarities with another mid-17th century idiom, ‘the last drop makes the cup run over.’
One of the most notable possible antecedents shows up in the writings of Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, and statesman.
In a discussion on why one shouldn’t fear death, Seneca compares like to a water clock, which is a timepiece that measures time by regulating the flow of liquid in or out of a vessel:
“It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock, but all that which previously has flowed out; similarly, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death; it merely of itself completes the death-process. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way.”
Some sources believe that the old proverb ‘it is the last feather that breaks the horse’s back.’ A similar phrase appears in the Thomas Hobbs quote listed in the previous section.
How would 'straw that broke the camel's back' be used in a sentence?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'straw that broke the camel's back'?
Here are some options:
The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ is an idiom with roots that stretch back several hundred years at least. It refers to the way that a number of small, seemingly inconsequential actions can add up to create a sudden, large reaction.
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