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What Does "Circle the Drain" Mean?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Circle the drain” is an English expression suggesting that something or someone is in an inevitable decline. It is inspired by the behavior of liquid as it approaches a drainpipe, particularly in a tub, shower, or sink. This common physical phenomenon has been used to describe situations ranging from international economics to failing relationships. Similar phrases to "circle the drain" include “downward spiral” and “nose dive.” All convey a sense of fatalism and the idea that recovery is unlikely at best.

Water and any liquid with a similar consistency tend to form a spiral vortex as they drain into a circular pipe. Anything floating on the surface of the liquid will also circle the drain if it is small and flexible enough. This common phenomenon is easily observed on a daily basis; most people encounter it at an early age. Contrary to popular belief, the direction of a drain’s spiral vortex is not determined by the hemispheres or rotation of the Earth. The Earth’s rotation does determine the direction of hurricanes and spiral storms, but has little to no influence on an area the size of a drainpipe.

As water is commonly drained out after the bathing process, the phrase “circle the drain” has come to mean the final or declining time span in the existence of the thing being described. This is a metaphor, a figure of speech using comparison for color or emphasis. It can refer to a person, an institution, or even an activity, such as, “His career is really circling the drain.” This is different from the saying “slippery slope,” meaning that an action will have an unintended, catastrophic long-term outcome. In modern use, “slippery slope” is usually intended as a warning, implying that a reversal of course is still possible.

Influential comics writer Alan Moore is fond of using the phrase to describe the political or economic environment. In a 2009 interview, for instance, he said, “The world economy does seem to be circling the drain ... we might have to start thinking about handling our culture differently.” The following year, pop star Katy Perry released a song titled “Circle the Drain” on her album Teenage Dream. Perry used the phrase to describe a disintegrating relationship.

The sense of an unstoppable decline is also conveyed by two other expressions, “downward spiral” and “nose dive.” “Downward spiral” is often used to describe celebrities and others with substance abuse or addiction problems. These problems can result in a slow but devastating decline in physical and mental health. The term “nose dive” is older and refers to an aircraft losing altitude with its nose pointed downward, a familiar image from the air battles of the World Wars. As with downward spirals and circled drains, recovery from a nose dive may be possible, but only with drastic action.

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