September 01, 2014 07:34 UTC

learningenglish

Words and Their Stories: Feel The Pinch



Download this story as a PDF

I'm Susan Clark with the Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

In the nineteen thirties, a song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," was very popular in the United States. It was the time of the big Depression. The song had meaning for many people who had lost their jobs.

A dime is a piece of money whose value is one-tenth of a dollar. Today, a dime does not buy much. But it was different in the nineteen thirties. A dime sometimes meant the difference between eating and starving.

The American economy today is much better. Yet, many workers are concerned about losing their jobs as companies re-organize.

Americans have special ways of talking about economic troubles. People in businesses may say they feel the pinch. Or they may say they are up against it. Or, if things are really bad, they may say they have to throw in the towel.

A pinch is painful pressure. To feel the pinch is to suffer painful pressure involving money.

The expression, feel the pinch, has been used since the sixteenth century. The famous English writer William Shakespeare wrote something very close to this in his great play "King Lear."

King Lear says he would accept necessity's sharp pinch. He means he would have to do without many of the things he always had.

Much later, the Times of London newspaper used the expression about bad economic times during the eighteen sixties. It said, "so much money having been spent ... All classes felt the pinch."

Worse than feeling the pinch is being up against it. The saying means to be in a lot of trouble.

Word expert James Rogers says the word "it" in the saying can mean any and all difficulties. He says the saying became popular in the United States and Canada in the late nineteenth century. Writer George Ade used it in a book called "Artie." He wrote, "I saw I was up against it."

Sometimes a business that is up against it will have to throw in the towel. This means to accept defeat or surrender.

Throwing in the towel may mean that a company will have to declare bankruptcy. The company will have to take legal steps to let people know it has no money to pay its debts.

Word expert Charles Funk says an eighteen seventy-four publication called the Slang Dictionary explains throwing in the towel. It says the words probably came from the sport of boxing, or prizefighting. The book says the saying began because a competitor's face was cleaned with a cloth towel or other material. When a boxer's towel was thrown, it meant he was admitting defeat.

Most businesses do not throw in the towel. They just re-organize so they can compete better.

(MUSIC)

This WORDS AND THEIR STORIES was written by Jeri Watson. I'm Susan Clark.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Helene
04/05/2012 8:43 AM
I love those new words beause of containing plenty of meaning only a few words .i hope you give more .Thank VOA


by: CheungElan
04/02/2012 4:24 AM
No wonder the boxer's coach will throw the towel if he think the boxer can not go on.


by: wangdalong
04/01/2012 12:38 AM
about Steven Paul Jobs

Learn with The News

  • Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar, Indonesia, April 8, 2013.

    Audio UN: Boat People Fleeing Myanmar, Bangladesh

    The United Nations says there has been a sudden increase in people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. Activists fear the number will continue to rise as refugees leave unclean camps and violence in Myanmar. They say that is especially true of ethnic Rohingya. More

  • Morgan County dispatcher Larry Holmes talks with a woman reporting a domestic disturbance as deputies respond to her location Friday, April 28, 2007, in Versailles, Mo. Because the 911 call came in on a landline, the address of the disturbance was immedia

    Audio It's an Emergency in Any Language

    In most countries, people can make a telephone call to ask for medical or police help using just three numbers. In the European Union, the number is 1-1-2. Some Asian countries use 9-9-9. In North America, the number is 9-1-1. More

  • A UNICEF worker shares information on Ebola and best practices to help prevent its spread with residents of the Matam neighborhood of Conakry, Guinea in this handout photo courtesy of UNICEF taken Aug. 20, 2014.

    Audio Conflicts, Ebola Put More Demands on UNICEF

    UNICEF says August has been its busiest month for emergency airlifts in the past 10 years. Some of the supplies going to Syria and Iraq are designed to help children deal with the effects of conflict. Some have gone to Liberia for use against the disease Ebola. More

  • FILE - A Vietnamese boy looks at dairy products at a showroom of the Vietnam Dairy Products Co (Vinamilk) in Hanoi.

    Audio Vietnam, We Have a Nutrition Problem

    Vietnam has a nutrition problem: too many of its children are underweight. Yet more and more Vietnamese boys and girls are becoming overweight. The two conditions may appear to be separate, but they are linked. They are both the result of poor diets. More

  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) has called the Islamic State an "imminent threat."

    Audio Can Islamic State Militants Attack the US?

    Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called the group, an “imminent threat.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham warned that the militants are willing and able to “hit the homeland.” | In The News More

Featured Stories

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs