According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs the origin of the phrase ‘clutching at straws’ is found in its earliest form in the 1583 work, ‘Fruitful and Brief Discourse,’ by John Prime: “We do not as men redie to be drowned, catch at euery straw.” This may in turn be a reference to an earlier text by Sir Thomas More: “like a man that in peril of drowning catcheth whatsoever cometh next to hand, and that holdeth he fast, be it never so simple as a stick.” (A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, 1534).
The phrase clearly caught on and can be found in a more familiar form in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: ‘A drowning man will catch at a straw’ (1748). It is not until 1832, however, that we find it in its current form: ‘As drowning men clutch at straws.’ (The New-York Mirror).
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that straw, a by-product of the farming industry, when used in a phrase, “is generally typical of that which is worthless,” giving the examples: “‘Not worth a straw’ [meaning] quite valueless… [and] ‘to care not a straw’ [meaning] not to care at all.’“
Other phrases which use straw in this manner include:
- A straw shows which way the wind blows – a trivial thing which foreshadows a greater event
- A man of straw – man of little substance
- The last/final straw – from the Old English prover: ‘Tis the last that straw breaks the horse’s (or more recently, camel’s) back
- To pick at straws – showing fatigue or weariness
- To stumble at a straw – to falter over nothing
- To throw straws against the wind – to oppose feebly an irresistible force
The imagery of a drowning man catching at a straw expresses the futility of the situation rather well; whilst straws float they would be quite useless to a drowning man. More recently, however, the phrase has come to be used in other contexts, aptly expressing a forlorn hope, often struck at out of desperation.
As a band name, I thought ‘Clutching At Straws’ to have potential along with another similarly themed (but currently top secret) name after the cessation of ‘The Glinics’ and before the formation of ‘The Search’ (which later became Clutching At Straws). I initially thought to suggest it should ‘The Glinics’ reform and thus withheld it from early discussions of band names with James W and Tom S. It wasn’t until I saw the potential of the band, having reinvented ourselves in a more folky genre as ‘Greatminds,’ that I suggested ‘Clutching At Straws’ (see the Bio if this is getting complicated). Amused, we agreed on it, thinking it a fitting, if slightly demeaning name for the band and still enjoy the opportunity to close a gig with the line, ‘Cheers. We’ve been Clutching At Straws!’ Thus we are and ever will be ‘Clutching At Straws,’ but perhaps our efforts will prove at least a little more fruitful than those of Sir Thomas More’s ‘man in peril of drowning.’