‘Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on August 17, 2023

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 expression that describes the way a number of small, seemingly inconsequential actions can add up to create a sudden, significant reaction.

What Does 'Straw That Broke the Camel's Back' Mean?

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:

  • The last straw
  • The final straw

When you hear someone use the phrases ‘the last straw’ or ‘the final straw,’ it refers to the last action in a sequence of unacceptable occurrences that lead to a large and sudden reaction.

  • Over the past few centuries, there have been a number of different versions of the proverb.

Here are some examples:

  • It is the last feather that breaks the horse's back
  • This final feather broke the camel's back
  • It is the last straw that overloads the camel
  • The last straw will break the camel's back
  • It was the last ounce that broke the back of the camel
  • The straw that broke the donkey's back
  • The last ounce broke the camel's back
  • The melon that broke the monkey's back
  • The last peppercorn breaks the camel's back
  • The hair that broke the camel's back
  • The straw that broke the horse's back

Understanding This Idiom

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.’

Where Does 'Straw That Broke the Camel's Back' Come From?

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."

Other Examples of the Idiom in Historic Texts

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.”

Possible Antecedents to the Phrase

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.

Examples of This Idiom In Sentences

How would 'straw that broke the camel's back' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “I’ve had the worst week of my life. When we got stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
  • “If I get one more phone call at the office from a disgruntled customer, it’s going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
  • “My uncle John was famous in our family for being agreeable. When my dad criticized his wife, though, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
  • Everyone just leaves their trash in the cafeteria every day, and I’m left there to pick it up. I didn’t mind it at first, but one of these days, I’m going to find the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
  • “I would prefer it if we didn’t assign this project to Sandra. She’s been overwhelmed recently, and I don’t want this to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Other Ways to Say 'Straw That Broke the Camel's Back'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'straw that broke the camel's back'?

Here are some options:

  • Pushed over the edge
  • The final nail in the coffin
  • Breaking point
  • The last drop makes the cup run over

Final Thoughts About 'Straw That Broke the Camel's Back'

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.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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