The straw that broke the camel’s back

Example in use: “I didn’t hear my alarm, I tripped over the cat on the way to the shower, my shower gel was empty and then, you’ll never guess what! I’d run out of tea bags! Talk about the straw that broke the camel’s back. What a catastrophic start to my day. I nearly went straight back to bed. I was in a really terrible mood all day!”

Meaning: one small thing that goes wrong which creates an exaggerated, negative reaction because it is actually the last in a long line of small things going wrong

Possible German equivalent: der Tropfen, der dass Fass zum Überlaufen bringt

Possible origin: This appears to have its origins in an old proverb, “’tis the last feather that breaks the horses back” from the 17th century although references this old can’t be confirmed. Charles Dickens used the expression in his novel Dombey and Son in 1848, suggesting it was in popular use at that time. “As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr Dumbly.”

However, this expression in turn appears seems to have been related to an old Arabian fable about a man who owned a camel. He loading the animal up with as much straw as possible to go to market and just at the point that the animal was already starting to stagger, he added one more single piece of straw to the load. The animal collapsed with a broken back, which meant that none of the straw could be delivered to market.

The shorter form of the expression, “the last straw” is also very popular in English to express a final, frustrating, often exaggerated end or reaction to what seems like series of small, unimportant problems. “I’d had a horrible morning but the final straw was when my car wouldn’t start. I’d had enough and just went home in the hope that the next day would be better!”

camel / ˈkæm.əl


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.