Brewer's: Straw

Servants wishing to be hired used to go into the market-place of Carlisle (Carel) with a straw in their mouth. (See Mop.)

At Carel I stuid wi' a strae i my mouth, The weyves com roun' me in custers; What weage dus te ax, canny lad? says yen.

Anderson: Cumberland Ballads.


chopped or otherwise, at a wedding, signifies that the bridge is no virgin. Flowers indicate purity or virginity, but straw is only the refuse from which corn has been already taken.

A little straw shows which way the wind blows.
Mere trifles often indicate the coming on of momentous events. They are shadows cast before coming events.

A man of straw.
A man without means; a Mrs. Harris; a sham. In French, “Un homme de paille,” like a malkin. (See Man Of Straw.)

I have a straw to break with you.
I am displeased with you; I have a reproof to give you. In feudal times possession of a fief was conveyed by giving a straw to the new tenant. If the tenant misconducted himself, the lord dispossessed him by going to the threshold of his door and breaking a straw, saying as he did so, “As I break this straw, so break I the contract made between us.” In allusion to this custom, it is said in Reynard the Fox —“The kinge toke up a straw fro' the ground, and pardoned and forguf the Foxe,” on condition that the Fox showed King Lion where the treasures were hid (ch. v.).

In the straw. “Être en couche”
(in bed). The phrase is applied to women in childbirth. The allusion is to the straw with which beds were at one time usually stuffed, and not to the litter laid before a house to break the noise of wheels passing by. The Dutch of Haarlem and Enckhuysen, when a woman is confined, expose a pin-cushion at the street-door. If the babe is a boy, the pin-cushion has a red fringe, if a girl a white one.

Not to care a straw for one.
In Latin, “[Aliquem] nihili, flocci, nauci, pili, teruncii facere.” To hold one in no esteem; to defy one as not worth your steel.

Not worth a straw.
Worthless. In French, “Je n'en donnerais pas un fétu” (or “un zeste).” Not worth a rap; not worth a pin's point; not worth a fig (q.v.); not worth a twopenny dam, etc.

She wears a straw in her ear. She is looking out for another husband. This is a French expression, and refers to the ancient custom of placing a straw between the ears of horses for sale.

The last straw.
The only hope left; the last penny. 'Tis the last straw that breaks the horse's (or camel's) back. In weighing articles, as salt, tea, sugar, etc., it is the last which turns the scale; and there is an ultimate point of endurance beyond which calamity breaks a man down.

To carry off the straw
(“Enlever la paille”). To bear off the belle. The pun is between “pal,” a slang word for a favourite, and “paille,” straw. The French palot means a “pal.” Thus Gervais says -

“Mais, oncore un coup, man palot.”

Le Coup d'OEil Purin, p. 64.

To catch at a straw.
To hope a forlorn hope. A drowning man will catch at a straw. To make bricks without straw. To attempt to do something without the proper and necessary materials. The allusion is to the exaction of the Egyptian taskmasters mentioned in Exodus v. 6-14. Even to the present, “bricks” in India, etc., are made of mud and straw dried in the sun. To make plum-puddings without plums.

To stumble at a straw. “Nodos in scirpo quoerere.”
To look for knots in a bulrush (which has none). To stumble in a plain way.

To throw straws against the wind.
To contend uselessly and feebly against what is irresistible; to sweep back the Atlantic with a besom.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894

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