Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Episode 209: The Last Straw

This week Shauna and Dan reach the last straw. The final straw. The straw that broke the camel's back. Also, apparently, of feathers and horses. Bonus: Alliterative anthropomorphic animals, Habitual nuns, and a request of xkcd.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 209: The Last Straw
Record Date: October 8, 2023
Air Date: October 11, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Recently, I’ve been struggling with feeling overwhelmed between work and school work and all the life things… As I was trying to do my laundry, I opened the cabinet to find I’d used the last of the laundry detergent and for a brief moment, I thought I might burst into tears. It was that final thing that was going to send me over the edge. It was the last straw….


As defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the final or last straw means

the last in a series of bad things that happen to make someone very upset, angry, etc.
It had been a difficult week, so when the car broke down, it was the last straw.
End Quote

That definition is pretty straightforward and I like that it includes the word final because that is the way this idiomatic expression is sometimes used by people today.

Before we get into the history and origin of the phrase, here is one more definition. It’s a little more poetic but I think it captures the nature of this phrase really well.

This is according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The last straw is
The culminating fact or event in a series of unpleasant or unwelcome ones, causing an extreme reaction not experienced before.

End Quote

Something important about this expression is that it usually implies some sort of next occurrence. Meaning, when someone experiences their “last straw” moment, it is typically followed by some sort of reaction or response.

Perhaps a person had one more customer who yelled at them over the phone or their boss enacted one more rule that they just can’t stand… if the call or the rule were their “last straw” then it means something has to give and their response may be that they quit their job.

A final straw moment isn’t necessarily negative. This phrase is sometimes used by people who’ve finally decided to buy something they’ve wanted for a long time or go on their dream trip… go back to college.

However, it is often used to refer to a negative thing as the final straw itself.

Okay, let’s dive into this.

Dan, any thoughts on the origin?

There are many who think that the idea comes from a much older phrase… a proverb that goes some like…

It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I love this idea because it really is such a fun phrase. I don’t know why, but I love animal-related idioms. Most of what I could find says this phrase may have started in the 1600s but they could only find evidence of it from the 1700s or 1800s and they were unable to really tie things together. However, there were several sites that mentioned another version of the phrase that pulls in a different type of animal. Some think this was in use earlier and some think it was just a side variant. This version says:

It is the last feather which breaks the horse’s back.”
End quote

And now we’re getting somewhere!

Dan… I’m not sure what would be required for us to be considered word-related experts.

Regardless of our unofficial linguist but expert word-nerd status, I did find a reference that doesn’t seem to have been previously identified. So here we go…

The first attestation I’d like to take a look at is from 1676 in a work by John Bramhall, edited by John Vesey, titled, The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, John Bramhall D.D., Late Lord Archbishop of Ardmagh, Ireland. Collected Into One Volume. In Four Tomes.

There remains only the last dictate of the understanding, which he maketh
to be the last cause that concurreth to the determination of the will, and to the necessary production of the act, as the last feather may be said to break an Horses back when there were so many laid on before, that there wanted but that to do it.
End Quote

He goes on to use this idea of horses being weighed down by feathers…  

Without the help of the understanding, all his second causes were not able of themselves to load the Horses back with so much weight as the least of  all his feathers doth amount unto. But we shall meet with his Horse Load of Feathers again.
End Quote

I really was hoping to find another work from this timeframe that mentioned this phrase. This was the only precise match I was able to find and I didn’t have time to sift through all of the hundreds of books from the 1600s that mention horse’s backs. I did look at quite a few but alas, no feathers or straws were the culprit of broken horsebacks in those cases.

However, that reference from 1676 definitely uses the concept figuratively and it does refer to the phrase as an expression or idea that people would have been familiar with.

Alright, let's move into the 1700s.

This next item is work titled A philosophical inquiry concerning human liberty by Anthony Collins, published in 1735.

Fourthly, there are in all trains of causes, that precede their effects, and especially effects which nearly resemble each other, certain differences undiscernable on account of their minuteness, and also on account of our not accustoming ourselves to attend to them, which yet in concurrence with other causes as necessarily produce their effect, as the last feather laid on breaks the horse's back, and as a grain necessarily turns the ballance between any weights, tho' the eye cannot discover which is the greatest weight or bulk by so small a difference.
End Quote

Flowery language aside, this excerpt is using the “last feather” that “breaks the horse’s back” to explain another idea - essentially saying that you don’t know it’s the last feather until it breaks the horse’s back or in this case that there are all sorts of things that lead up to something happening. There are many causes, not just one and it is not possible to blame the final thing as the sole cause. The one feather would be fine for the horse to carry - were it not already carrying so many other feathers.

Up next is a work from 1786 titled The Beauties of the British Senate: Taken from the Debates of the Lords and Commons, from the Beginning of the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, to the End of the Second Session of the Administration of the Right Hon. William Pitt: Being an Impartial Selection Of, Or Faithful Extracts From, the Most Eminent Speeches, Delivered in the Course of a Most Important and Truly Interesting Period, O’e More Than Fifty Years; Severally Arranged Under Their Respective Heads, with the Names of the Members, to Whom They are Ascribed, Annexed Thereto. To which is Prefixed, The Life of Sir Robert Walpole.

I cannot but admire the noble Lord's (Mahon) impartiality in now calling to order, and asking if there is any question before the House, when he has listened patiently to four or five speeches without any question being before the House. He will not, however, hear one from me, but has verified the old proverb, "That the last feather always breaks the horse's back." The noble Lord, like a stately camel, in like manner, has borne very heavy burdens, but cannot now bear the weight of my bunch on his back.
End Quote

This one stood out to me because it uses the phrase with horse but also mentions a camel.

This next reference is by someone a little more well-known. In 1776, Thomas Paine went viral. Seriously, within 3 months, around 120-150 thousand copies were sold of his pamphlet, Common Sense. Now, he may not have retained that popularity with all of his works, but his name was absolutely known. It was 20 years later in 1796 that his work titled Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance was published. The title page advertised the work as

By Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, American Crisis, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, Etc.
End Quote

Here is an excerpt from Decline and Fall,
The funding system is a system of anticipation. Those who established it an hundred years ago, anticipated the resources of those who were to live an hundred years after; for the people of the present day have to pay the interest of the debts contracted at that time, and of all debts contracted since. But it is the last feather that breaks the horse's back.
End Quote

The phrase continued to be used in the 1800s and includes straws and camels.

This next excerpt is from the Lynchburg Virginian February 13, 1843, out of Lynchburg, Virginia.

Indeed, that was the drop which made the cup of forbearance run over - the “Last Straw” which broke the camel’s back - the very measure from which the Nullification controversy arose.
End Quote

The Sauk Centre herald October 31, 1895, out of Stearns County, Minnesota included the following in the ad section.

The following we clip from “Printer’s Ink,” the livliest metropolitan advertising medium in the country: “It is “the last straw that breaks the camel’s back” so it is often the superfluous word that mars the effectiveness of an ad. One unnecessary “beautiful adjective” will ruin a hundred lines of otherwise well-written matter.”
What a plainly stated truth: Advertisers will be wise to carefully note the above and see that their notices to the public is a “right to the point” advertisement.
End Quote

Around this time, there were also quite a few items that mention the last straw without camels or horses. However, these are referring to a different concept - grasping at straws. So, there is a little bit of overlap between these various versions. So, we’ll just be looking at usages that are definitely in the back-breaking style.

This next item is from the August 20, 1915, edition of The day book out of Chicago, Illinois. This is from the story Fifty and Fifty by Florence Lillian Breckenridge.
"I am glad of it!" spoke Harley Blake, and he looked as if in dead earnest and relieved.
He was seated before the cold and empty fireplace of his cheerless room.
He made a faint glow of heat and warmth, however, by striking a match and igniting the letter he had just received and read. He dropped it to the hearth and watched it curl up. into fragile sheets of black and then at a breath go crumbling into frag-ments.
"The last bridge burned," he mused trying to smile half-humorously, but the situations was too serious. have exhausted my friends and rela-tives. The former gave me profuse promises of influence and help and failed me. My father's own brother writes me a homily on independence and thrift and would not even risk giving me a recommendation of capability and honesty. That letter is the last straw that breaks the camel's back.
Good-by to the old life for good!"
End Quote

In the Evening star July 27, 1952 out of Washington, D.C., there is a tale titled, "THIS is the last straw!". We are jumping in at the exciting bit.

Shortly after 2 a.m., the first of a series of violent earth tremors shook the hotel. Dorothy awoke and prodded Howard.
"There's an earthquake," she quavered. "Let's get out of here."
"Now, my dear," grumbled Howard in his best "Life with Father" manner, "you know how I need my rest," and rolled back to sleep.
After a second and more pronounced quake, Dorothy and Howard made a concerted dive for the exit. In the hall they bumped into the Englishman, his hat jammed down on his head, a hunting coat thrown over his nightgown and an old valise clutched in his hand.
"This is the last straw," he shouted, obviously blaming them for everything. "One can't even take a bath in this accursed land in peace. I'm through!"
End Quote

The Last Straw the “Camel” Game is a 1966 game by Schaper - makers of the game Cootie. Here is a description of the game on Board Game Geek.
Load the camel with straw, but don't be the one to add the straw that breaks the camel's back! Two piece camel on wheels, held together with a rubber band, will eventually collapse under the weight of the wooden sticks.
End Quote

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

For this phrase, we’re going to go through the modern uses in groups. The timelines are a little overlapping so I think this will be less confusing.

We have a wide variety of books with titles that include numerous versions of the phrase. They range from medical-ish advice to murder mystery, social commentary and political satire, intense emotional narratives and so, so many interesting romance tales. I’ve selected just a few titles to highlight.

The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Backpack is a 2015 book by Amelia Rose, Illustrated by Matthew Maley.

Charley is a camel with a heart of gold. He loves balancing Zanna the Zebra's xylophone on his back when she has a recital, acting as a hurdle for Robby the Roadrunner during gym class, and carrying books for Poppy the Porcupine. Because he is so strong and kindhearted, Charley's friends always look to him for help. Charley doesn't mind. He just wants to fit in with others.

In this colorful and charming children's tale, a little camel with a big heart learns a valuable lesson about the power of give and take, and what happens when he takes on more than he can handle.
End Quote

Sisters of the Last Straw is a children’s book series by Karen Kelly Boyce. The Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel is the first book in the series and was published in 2018. Here is a synopsis,
The first in a series of children’s books that convey the fun-filled story of a group of misfit nuns. These sisters and their madcap adventures teach the importance of tolerance and forgiveness. Each book focuses on the virtues of Gospel living and the frailties of human nature. While children delight in the humor and fast-paced exploits of this special group of nuns, they learn the need to be forgiving of the faults of others and to look for the good in all people. Children are enchanted and entertained with the humorous escapades of the characters while learning the importance of basic Christian values, growth, and love.
End Quote

And a completely different style of novel…
Lucy's Last Straw is a 2022 book by Debbie Viggiano. Here’s the description:

It was the toothpaste smeared around the sink that broke my marriage. As I rubbed it away again, I was reminded of everything else I've put up with these twenty-five years. My husband's obsession with his pension, his ability to charm me into every single one of his ideas, never being taken on a romantic date, let alone ravished on the patio (like the woman who lives next door)... small things, but the realisation was huge.

Just when Lucy Jones thinks her marriage is about to screech to a halt over toothpaste, her husband, Leo, announces he wants to move to tumbledown (clapped-out) Rose Cottage, and Lucy knows she'll be the one managing the renovations.

Then along comes gorgeous builder Will, ten years younger and the only person actually listening to Lucy. His twinkly eyes and blowtorch smile are causing Lucy to break out in a hot sweat – but is it love, lust or simply dodgy hormones that are causing her heart to flutter?

Lucy loves her husband, but everyone knows that little things build up. And then they explode. Can Lucy keep it together, or will there be one last straw she might not be able to get over?

A laugh-out-loud romp with an ending that will make you gasp! Perfect for fans of Tracy Bloom, Sophie Kinsella and Dawn French.
End Quote

Okay, moving on… let’s cover some musical selections.

The Final Straw is a 2017 song by CG5 based on the game Cuphead. In Cuphead, players assume the role of Cuphead and his brother Mugman, two animated characters who must traverse a surreal and challenging world, battling a variety of eccentric and formidable bosses, in a quest to repay their debt to the devil after losing a bet at a casino.
Contract after contract.
Walkin' all over the town.
You will all be ransacked.
And we will take the crown!

So as the brothers that we are,
Together we band.
This is the last and final straw,
So take my hand, man.
We shall be shooting for the stars.
We're taking a stand.
This match will get so very hot,
So take my hand, man.
End Quote

Another song The Last Straw was released on the Widespread Panic album Miss Kitty’s Lounge in 2022. The album features songs that were originally recorded in 1990 at Johns Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia. The songs were previously unreleased demos. 

Here are some of the lyrics,
No straw can bury us
We can carry us
But you better jump right now
Cause these brakes left some sparks
And now the wagon's caught fire
Let's jump up on the camel's back
Not one straw there gonna break his back
Not one straw there gonna break his back
Just the weight of five short men
Let's jump up on the camel's back
Not one straw there gonna break his back
Not one straw there gonna break his back
Just the weight of six young men
End Quote

Final Straw is a 2003 album by the Scottish-Northern-Ireland rock band Snow Patrol that was reissued as a 20th anniversary edition in 2023. According to an article from March 2023 on,
The 2003 album was the band’s “last throw of the dice” as they strived for a commercial breakthrough and as it turned out, it really delivered! Final Straw spawned four top 30 singles in the UK, including the top 5 ‘Run’ and has been certified 6 x Platinum in the UK.
End Quote

Here are a few lyrics from the hit song Run,
Slower, slower
We don't have time for that
All I want's to find an easy way
To get out of our little heads
Have heart, my dear
We're bound to be afraid
Even if it's just for a few days
Making up for all this mess

Light up, light up
As if you have a choice
Even if you cannot hear my voice
I'll be right beside you, dear
End Quote

Wrap up:
This phrase is everywhere! It shares a feeling that no one loves but pretty much everybody can relate to. Feeling overwhelmed or at the end of your patience with a situation… like you’re running out of options or running out of chances… it can be horribly stressful. And we all have a point we will reach that will prompt us to break - the result might be falling apart or it might mean we take action. But maybe we can take this all as a lesson. Don’t wait for the last straw. If you’re just waiting for that one last thing to happen… do something now. Make it happen the way you want it to happen. It’s your relationship, your dream, your life. Why not be the one writing your story?

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Which of these Star Trek TV shows have you watched??

The order for the poll was pulled from a Screen Rant article by John Orquiola dated April 6, 2023.

The series with the most views was The Next Generation, followed closely by Enterprise, The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  

Others from the list are Strange New Worlds, The Animated Series, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Picard.

Dan Pugh

TNG is still my favorite for mostly nostalgic reasons. And I loved season 3 of Picard. I've seen season 1 of SNW which I thought was the best first season of any trek I've seen. I also really love DS9. O'Brien is the best character in Trek in my opinion and Colm Meany may be the second best actor in Trek behind Patrick Stewart.


Mary said,
I love them all for different reasons. The original series made me fall in love with the whole concept of intergalactic relations and how sci-fi can be a platform and fun at the same time. TNG brought so much story, science, and character that it will never grow old. DS9 is the perfect combination of an epic war story and a battle between gods and mortals, or at least beings who think they’re gods. Voyager is a tale of survival and redemption with everyone battling inner demons and most of them winning. Enterprise is a love story wrapped in backstory and Lower Decks is just quirky fun. I’m still working on the newer ones, but have to say I still haven’t found a favorite. They are all so good.
End Quote

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.


1 comment:


    When you were discussing the history of this phrase, you commented on how it’s not really the last thing that breaks the camels back, but everything that comes before it. That comment made me think of this cartoon by artist Nick Seluk/the Awkward Yeti.

    Also, if you’ve never checked out “Awkward Yeti” or “Heart and Brain”, do yourself a favor and scroll through some of their comic panels. I think you’ll be glad you did.