Figures of speech come easily to the speaker or the writer, but we seldom take the time to figure out what they meant originally. A good example is today’s “word”, grasping at straws.
The best answer I can find is that it refers to a person who is drowning who grabs for the straws or weeds growing nearby, hoping that they will provide enough leverage to be able to pull one’s self back to safety. Obviously, the straws are insufficient and simply pull out of the ground without providing the life-saving quality sought.
The illustration above is not terribly positive, but it provides the sense of panic and the kick-in of survival instincts that give the figure of speech its strength. Garner identifies a figure of speech as”
“the use of an expression in which a word or words are used for stylistic effect rather than for their literal meaning.” (p.895)
Consequently, the use of a figure of speech such as grasping at straws must be used sparingly, and must anticipate that the reader has the ability to make the transition from literal to figurative language. I frequently find that I have friends who are very literal in their use of language and are horrified by a commentI have employed, assuming the term or phrase is meant as written. It takes explanation and stress-reduction to get them through the moment.
Similarly, the complaint can be made that the use of a figure of speech can overstate an issue. To tell the doctor that pain is “killing me” may be better stated that the pain is intense or too frequent. That’s why most medical people use the pain scale for reference these days, asking the patient to grade the level of pain from 0 (absent) to 10 (excrutiating and unbearable.) It’s a much better evaluative tool and avoids the use of metaphors, illustrations, or other forms of figures of speech.
I have never been known to literally “tear my hair out” or “shoot myself in the foot,” although I might easily have used those terms to describe a situation numerous times.
To grasp at straws is to attempt to justify something with an answer which is inadequate to the task. The easy example is the person who is going to solve all of her credit card debt by playing the Power Ball lottery. She is grasping at straws, the liklihood of her winning being in the range of nearly impossible.
But the person who is running for elective office who searches hard for damning evidence of his opponent may be grasping at straws as well. If the opponent is squeaky clean and has lived his life as a Boy Scout he may not be vulnerable to that kind of attack. To try to label the person as a liar and cheat for having lifted a quote from the Encyclopedia Brittanica in his seventh grade history class is to grasp at straws. The childish act does not qualify as a credential. Had the candidate borrowed occasionally on papers in college, however, it would be a different story.
Grasping at straws is characterized as a futile gesture taken when someone is desperate. The wife who criticizes an action of her husband thirty years ago in order to win an argument is grasping at straws, as is the teen who qualifies his shoplifting by pointing out that his father claimed a tax benefit ten years ago that was questionable. In these cases, the drowning person should be proficient in prayer.
Photo Credit: Anthony Iannarrio