This is the full read-only archive of the "Ask the Wordwizard" section of the original Wordwizard site. The responses to the questions originate from Jonathon Green, the compiler of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang and numerous other dictionaries.
Can you tell me where the saying "the straw that broke the camel's back" comes from? I've tried the usual suspects: Bartlett's, the Bible, Shakespeare, et. al. Thank you!
Denham Springs, LA
Submitted by Tracy Amond (Denham Springs - U.S.A.)
Signature: Topic imported and archived
The first citation of the use comes in Dickens' Dombey & Son (1848): 'As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr. Dombey' and it is followed by one from the celebrated nursing heroine Florence Nightingale, who stated in her book 'Nursing' (1861): 'It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.' This has the flavour of a well-known proverb, and it as such I assume it originated. ASs to the date, I cannot say, although many such proverbs seem to have entered the language, at least in print, in the 16C/17C.
Signature: Jonathon Green