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What Does It Mean to Be "in Dire Straits"?

Jim B.
Updated: May 23, 2024

"In dire straits" is an English idiom referring to someone who has somehow come to be in a very serious predicament. The implication with this phrase often is that the person or persons who find themselves in such a situation may not be able to extricate themselves from it. As a result, there is a serious undertone that often accompanies the usage of this phrase. Seafarers who had to pass through dangerous waters were the originators of this phrase.

Sometimes speakers choose to describe ideas or feelings in very clear, literal terms. Speaking in this manner can become stilted and unexciting after a while, though. As a result, many people use short phrases known as idioms, which may have meanings that are accepted by a specific culture even if they differ wildly from the literal definitions of the words that they contain. These idioms are perfect for those people who want to sound more colloquial and impactful in their speech. One such idiom is the phrase "in dire straits."

The accepted meaning behind this phrase is that the person being described in this manner is in a lot of trouble. Circumstances have arisen which leave someone in a desperate situation from which there appears to be no available remedy. As a result, a phrase that conjures up such serious images is necessary. For example, someone might say, "I can't believe that the plane is out of fuel, and I'm afraid now that all of the passengers are in dire straits."

Of course, the phrase is flexible enough to be used on less somber occasions. Using it in less serious situations implies that there is a bit of exaggeration being done by the speaker. The problems being faced might not be life or death, even if they are particular damaging in their own specific circumstances. As an example, consider the sentence, "I thought our team would be able to come back, but it looks like they're in dire straits now."

In that last example, a relatively trivial occurrence is described in a dramatic way. Such exaggeration gets to the heart of what idioms are meant to accomplish. If this particular phrase were taken literally, it would mean that everyone described in this manner were in danger of drowning in dangerous waters. Instead, it is accepted that the idiom "in dire straits" refers to a problematic situation that can occur anytime and anywhere.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By SarahSon — On Apr 08, 2012

I find myself using this expression often, but they are not life and death situations. This is an expression I heard my dad use quite a bit, and I refer to it whenever I find myself in a tough situation.

These situations always seem to work themselves out. My problem is I always think about the worst that could happen and feel like I could really be in dire straits.

My tough situations are nothing nearly as serious as the sailors who came up with the expression in the first place. They truly were in life or death situations - probably more times than many people ever realized.

By myharley — On Apr 07, 2012

@John57 - There was another song I recall by Dire Straits called Walk of Life. They were a rock band, and I never really got into rock music, but a friend of mine really liked this song.

There have been a few times in my life when I really felt like I was "in dire straits". I went to college about 8 hours away from home and this was in the day before cell phones.

Once I was on my way home at night and my car broke down and I was traveling by myself. I really didn't know what I was going to do, and felt like I was in dire straits.

Thankfully a family stopped by to see if they could help me and took me to a place where I could wait and call home. I am so glad it was a family that stopped since I felt comfortable getting in the car with them.

By John57 — On Apr 07, 2012

Whenever I hear the term 'Dire Straits' I remember the "Money for Nothing" song by Dire Straits. They were a British rock band in the 80's and this is the only song I remember them singing, but it was popular at the time.

I always wondered how they came up with the name for their band. Not only do I find it interesting to know where idioms originated, but I also find it fascinating to know how a band chooses their name.

By whiteplane — On Apr 06, 2012

I know this is a little off topic but sultans of swing by Dire Straits is probably my all time favorite song. I put it on the juke box any time I see it and I have a Dire Straits greatest hits collection that I have almost worn out. I

By summing — On Apr 06, 2012
Once my friends and I were truly in dire straits. It is a long story but I will try to condense it to it's most intense moments.

We were out camping and we had hiked to a river to fish. A huge storm blew in and in our rush back to camp our friend cut his foot badly. We got back to camp to find it completely washed out. We packed everything up took off most of our wet clothes off and threw them into the car. And then my other friend managed to lock the keys in the car. So we were half naked, freezing cold in a storm, locked out of the car that has all out gear and supplies, one of us is bleeding badly and we are 30 miles from any town. I would call that dire straights.

We were able to hitch a ride and everything worked out but it was pretty dicey there for a little bit.

By MissDaphne — On Apr 06, 2012

I love seeing explanations like this of common idioms, because it helps people understand and use them correctly. Pople will, for instance, say "For all intensive purposes" when they mean "for all intents *and* purposes."

Knowing the dire straits definition also helps bring this dead metaphor to life. I picture the person using the phrase in a small one-person vessel, navigating a narrow channel between dangerous rocks!

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
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