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What Does It Mean to Get "down and Dirty"?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Idioms, often called expressions or sayings, richly enhance the English language. While many very common idioms have been a staple in the language for decades and even centuries, other idioms are relatively new and reflect some aspects of modern culture. One such idiom is “down and dirty,” which can mean one of two things. People use it to describe a situation or individual who operates in a deceitful or devious manner, but it also works as a euphemism for sex, particularly sex that is in some way wild, uncontrolled, or illicit.

“Down and dirty” did not come into popular use until the mid to late 1980s. Its use spread very rapidly as it seemed to reflect issues in what was then current culture. The actions of shady politicians were called “down and dirty,” and public attention to and curiosity about a wide range of sexual practices had recently become the subject of films, books, and other media, putting it front and center to the eyes of both Americans and the British.

Although this expression is relatively recent, there is no clear absolute source of origin that linguists have been able to find. Several theories abound. Some believe the phrase “down and dirty” entered common speech as a result of the film Dirty Dancing. This movie, which starred Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, explored the nature of prohibited sexual attraction through the medium of dance. Swayze, as a dance instructor, teaches Grey sultry dance moves, some of which bring the dancers low to the ground as they grind their hips together.

Another theory holds that “down and dirty” stems from the card game called poker. In this game, some of the cards are dealt facedown, while others are laid faceup. The last of seven cards dealt is placed facedown. Until each player receives the final card, it is impossible to anticipate how the game will play out. A bad card can effectively besmirch an otherwise positive hand, thus “dirtying” it.

Yet another possible source of the expression can be found in sports. Sports enthusiasts may be very involved with their particular games of choice without actually participating in game play. Whether they watch a game on television or live, they do not “dirty their hands” because they aren’t the ones chasing the ball, leaping, or tackling. It is the players themselves, in this interpretation of the expression, who actually get “down and dirty.”

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Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Jan 05, 2014

To the poster who said that his/her boss would say, "let's get down and dirty" to signal the beginning of work, I think it's a mix of the following two idioms: "lets get our hands dirty" and "lets get down to business". In other words, I don't think it is right to use "down and dirty" to mean one is about to do some serious work.

By MaPa — On Oct 30, 2011

@letshearit - I don't know that things are any more "down and dirty" today, at least not in mainstream film. I think what is happening is that everything is just so much more accessible and in your face due to a million channels on TV, and the Internet bringing everything right to your home.

If you watch a movie from the 70s, or especially the 80s, there was all kinds of nudity and sex. The difference is, you had to go to the theater and watch it, where now you can watch everything at home through Netflix or cable. It is much more accessible, even to children.

As with any good thing, like the Internet, it can also be a tool for things we don't want. The ability to communicate with the entire world essentially anytime you want can be an extremely powerful thing, but is also means that anyone can use it, and the effects can sometimes be different from what you might want.

By Veruca10 — On Oct 29, 2011

@cloudel - I was going to say that the problem is that he was using a pickup line at all, but I see it goes much deeper than that. I would hazard a guess than no man in history had ever successfully had a date with a woman after asking her if she wanted to get "down and dirty", unless he met her at a swinger's club or something.

I guess it takes all kinds, but this guy sounds like he's going to stay pretty lonely if he doesn't adjust his game. Has he ever tried just walking up and saying hello? There's a thought.

By horsebite — On Oct 28, 2011

@lighth0se33 - That's kind of funny. I've never heard the term used so literally before. They really mean that they are going to fall down, and get dirty. Thus, down and dirty. Perfect!

It's funny how families can take on a term and make it their own. It may sound funny to outsiders, but you know exactly what it means. I once heard of a family where the kids called their grandfather "Bucka Bucka". Nobody could explain why, that's just what they called him, and he liked it. Who am I to argue?

By Nepal2016 — On Oct 27, 2011

@hamje32 - I don't think the phrase has quite so harsh a meaning these days. I have heard it used, and used it myself, to simply mean "getting down to business" or really getting involved in something. I don't think that it is always said as an insult anymore.

Now, you certainly still could insult something or someone by calling them "down and dirty", but it isn't something you really hear much these days. In fact, this is the first time I've heard it used in several years.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 27, 2011

I have five brothers, so I am familiar with this idiom. Whenever they say they are going to get down and dirty, I know it means they are about to play football.

Every Thanksgiving, they pair up with uncles and cousins for a big football game in our yard. They wait a few hours after eating the big feast, and then, one of them always says, “Are you ready to get down and dirty?”

They really do get down on the ground and covered in dirt. I have treated many grass stains and shaken off much mud from their clothes right after the games. They always bring something to change into, because they know it’s shameful not to have some dirt on them to show how hard they played.

By cloudel — On Oct 26, 2011

I have a cousin who has trouble meeting women. I have tried to tell him that the problem lies in his pickup line.

If he sees an attractive woman, he will strike up conversation for a short time. Where he messes up is when he asks this stranger he just met if she wants to get down and dirty! Seriously, he words it just like that.

Every woman he has ever asked this has run away. So, he tried talking to one for several hours and buying her drinks before popping the question. She still ran away.

I told him that women need romance. He just shows them how perverted he is by asking them this, and they see how unromantic he is.

By letshearit — On Oct 26, 2011

It seems to me that more movies these days aren't afraid to let their actors get down and dirty. From what I take away from it, it seems like the whole thing has turned into a bit of a social commentary about how accessible sex imagery is these days. With the Internet there is a proliferation of pornography that many would argue is changing the way that people view sex and relationships. Let's not even get into things like video chat.

Do you think that the modern media is looking at getting down in dirty in a whole new way? Is it more acceptable now to let it all hang out in film?

By orangey03 — On Oct 25, 2011

@Perdido - I used to be like you. I worked in an office, and I never had to dirty up my hands. I felt unsatisfied, though, so I decided to take a job that would let me get down and dirty.

I started working for a landscaping company. I have always loved gardening, and I took the position to be able to plant flowers in people’s yards. I worked with soil and plants all day, and it fulfilled me.

The crew would have meetings every morning before we started on a project. Once we had all been told what to do, the boss would say, “All right, let’s get down and dirty.” To me, this meant it was time to have fun.

By popcorn — On Oct 24, 2011

Getting down and dirty seems to be a much used idiom in popular culture. I see it a lot in headlines when a journalist wants to bring attention to something stars have been up to that is a little bit naughty.

It still seems to me that getting down and dirty has a bit of shock value in our culture when it relates to sexual inhibition. Though generally, when tabloids use this phrase it could be for something as simple as a blurry nude photo being captured, or a sexy scene in a movie. I really don't think it is used much to talk about things that are really bad anymore.

By Perdido — On Oct 23, 2011

I work in the advertising department of a newspaper, so I work on the computer all day. The people in the back who work with the press and with stacking the papers do the dirty work.

The week before Thanksgiving is our biggest week. The workers in the back needed extra help stacking the papers and inserting the sales papers into them on Thanksgiving morning so that we could all get out of there before lunchtime and start out holiday.

So, everyone in advertising went to the back, and they told us we were about to get “down and dirty.” We put on aprons to protect our clothes, and we got ink all over our hands. We had to use a special soap to wash it off.

It made me grateful to work on a computer. I did a horrible job of stacking, and I think I got dirtier than most people, because papers kept slipping out of my hands and onto the floor.

By cafe41 — On Oct 23, 2011

@David09- I have heard the term used to mean that you get very involved with your work or “Get your hands dirty”. I think that this is an interesting idiom and one that probably confuses a lot of people learning English for the first time.

A lot of times when people learn a new language for the first time they tend to apply a literal meaning to things and not understand the colloquial definition of the phrase until much later. I bet that this can be really difficult to master for some people.

By hamje32 — On Oct 23, 2011

@David09 - Unfortunately I’ve heard the term used in both contexts, describing both dishonest behavior and illicit sex.

I’ve heard it used to describe politicians embroiled in scandal, for whom both definitions seem appropriate at the same time. Personally, I don’t like the term – especially the word “dirty.”

It’s a value loaded term, and one that is very judgmental. Of course, that’s the popular culture for you; we can’t decide what phrases become part of our lingo. I just think this is one that we should use very sparingly.

By David09 — On Oct 22, 2011

I’m familiar with the idea of getting your hands “dirty” which means to actually do some real work, but I haven’t down and dirty as an expression too much. I have heard it used in the first context, that of it representing devious activity.

I always find it amusing however when a certain phrase enters our lexicon and no one seems to know where it came from, which seems to be the suggestion from the article.

How can that be? Someone somewhere must have originated the expression; maybe it came from an obscure source, like a man on the street, and somehow it just got picked up and winded its way into our popular culture.

I don’t buy the idea that it came from the movie Dirty Dancing, however. I think that’s just a theory.

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