The Meaning of Dire Straits: What It Is and How To Use It

This guide will give you all of the info you need on the idiom dire straits, including its definition, synonyms, origin, sentence examples, and more!

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What does the phrase dire straits mean?

Merriam-Webster English Dictionary and other dictionary apps state that the phrase “in dire straits” means that someone is in a very bad or difficult situation. The Free Dictionary states that one variation of this phrase is “in desperate straits.” Dire straits is a state of extreme distress. If someone is in dire straits, this may mean that they are in legal or financial trouble, or in some other form of difficult situation.

What is the origin of the phrase dire straits?

According to Sesquiotic, the phrase first emerged in the late 1800s. This was used in an 1892 article from Paganini, and one from the Colony of Natal’s Legislative Debates in June of 1890. In 1888, Joseph Thomson used the phrase dire straits in the story “A Masai Adventure.” The first recorded usage of the phrase was a speech by former United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 24, 1933. However, the earliest seen usage of the phrase is from the epic poem of the 1700s The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius. In lines 719-720, the poem reads “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.”

Cirtinas also states that this phrase is used in Homer’s Iliad in the following quote. ““To-morrow morning, Juno, if you choose to do so, you will see the son of Saturn destroying large numbers of the Argives, for fierce Hector shall not cease fighting till he has roused the son of Peleus when they are fighting in dire straits at their ships’ sterns about the body of Patroclus.” The phrase was also used in a translation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

The term gained popularity in the early 1900s and continues to spread until the 1930s. Then, its usage held steady until the 1980s when the music group Dire Straits were formed. After the band formed, the phrase has steadily grown in popularity every year.

Where is the phrase dire straits seen in popular culture?

The most famous usage of the phrase dire straits is the band of the same name. The band Dire Straits is a British rock band that formed during the post-punk era of the late 1970s, according to All Music. The band was led by guitarist and vocalist Mark Knopfler. He began playing music with his brother David Knopfler and his roommate and bassist John Illsley. In 1977, they partnered with drummer Pick Withers to create a demo.

From this demo, their hit single “Sultans of Swing” gained popularity in both the UK and America. Their second album Communique sold over 3 million worldwide copies. While their next album Making Movies was criticized critically, it still had MTV hits like “Romeo and Juliet.” Following this, the band released the album Love Over Gold, which featured the hit single “Private Investigations.” In 1985, they released the album Brothers in Arms with the songs “Money for Nothing,” “Walk of Life,” and “So Far Away.” Other hits include “Telegraph Road.” Ranker asserts that Down to the Waterline was at the top of their list of the Best Dire Straits Albums of All Time.

Along with other musicians like Eric Clapton, Dire Straits led the rock music scene of the late 1980s that aimed to appeal to the baby boomer generation. Many of these albums are available on Juno Records.

According to Grammy, the band has won two Grammy Awards and been nominated seven times. They won Best Music Video in 1986 for “Brothers in Arms” and Best Rock Performance by a Duo of Group for “Money for Nothing” in 1985.

What are synonyms for the phrase dire straits?

Thesaurus states many different alternate phrases to use in place of dire straits. These synonyms may be used if one does not want to repeat themselves, or if they are looking to expand their vocabulary.

  • Needy
  • Ill-starred
  • In need
  • In want
  • Badly off
  • Down and out
  • Depressed
  • Impoverished
  • Indigent
  • Hapless
  • Unfortunate
  • Deprived
  • Destitute
  • Hard up
  • Have-not
  • Ill-fated
  • Disadvantaged
  • Handicapped
  • Unlucky

How can the phrase dire straits be used in a sentence?

The phrase dire straits is fairly versatile and can be used in a variety of circumstances. It can be used to describe any type of difficult or distressing situation. Below are examples of ways this phrase can be used in conversation. In the first example, Dani and Tawny, two teachers at the same school, are discussing a student they share.

Dani: Hey, have you noticed anything weird about Tony lately? He used to be one of my best students but he hasn’t turned in an assignment in weeks.

Tawny: It’s the same way in my class. I heard his family is in dire straits; his parents split up and their house is being foreclosed upon.

Dani: Oh my goodness.

In this next example, Kiara calls her dad when she breaks down on the side of the highway.

Kiara: Hey dad, sorry for calling you from a weird number.

Dad: What’s wrong?

Kiara: My car broke down on the freeway, my phone is dead AND I haven’t eaten today. I’m right past exit 13. Could you come pick me up?

Dad: I’m on my way.

Overall, the phrase dire straits means to be in extreme distress or a very bad situation. This phrase was made most popular by the British rock band of the same name. This phrase can be used to describe someone who is in financial or legal trouble, or in some other form of physical or mental distress.