Sometimes, in search of brilliant and entertaining ideas—or even just adequate and mildly readable ideas—it doesn’t matter how diligently I scrape the bottom of that barrel. There’s just not much there but a couple of fragments of rust and an old paper clip.
Or maybe I should say a few grains of flour and a couple of weevils. I assume the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel” comes from the days when all sorts of food staples were stored and shipped in barrels, and if you were scraping the bottom you’d better hope the freight wagons would get in soon so you could replenish your supplies.
It’s an idiom best used carefully, though. I remember years ago, moving from one small South Dakota town to another, my then-husband and I were having a hard time finding a house to rent. In August, sleeping in a tent in a campground at the city park was temporarily doable (I remember watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on someone’s TV set there), but as a long-term housing solution it lacked appeal. We had gone from searching for a house to searching for a short-term rental apartment that would do until we found a house.
Desperation is sometimes a spur to creativity, and one day it occurred to us that the historic old hotel at one end of the main street might have apartments. We stopped in to ask. The man at the registration desk, who was on the older side of middle aged and obviously the manager if not the owner, was friendly enough in a dignified and formal way. I told him we were having a terrible time finding a place to rent and in checking at the hotel we were scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Not a good idiom to use. He informed us stiffly that the hotel was “hardly the bottom of the barrel.” I scrambled to explain that I wasn’t referring to the quality of their rooms but to what we assumed to be the small likelihood that they would have apartments to rent.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t have any. Not, after I had put his back up and ruffled his feathers, that he would necessarily have told us if they had.
He wouldn’t have gotten his knickers in a twist, forcing me to backpedal and eat my words, if I hadn’t used the wrong idiom for the occasion. What I meant wasn’t “scraping the bottom of the barrel” but “grasping at straws.”
Even in today’s world, where the only exposure most of us have to a barrel is hearing news reports about the price of oil, and we have only the vaguest idea of the actual size of a barrel of crude oil, it’s easy enough to make sense of “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” But what about “grasping at straws?” We use it to mean using anything we can find, even when it’s clearly irrelevant or inadequate, but where does it come from?
I suppose it could describe skinny cows or goats out in a field during a very dry year, munching at stalks of straw because there isn’t any real grass left to eat. Or a hungry donkey or horse reaching for the last few bits of hay in an empty manger. But that isn’t quite the same as “grasping.” And, of course, grasping at straws is not the same as the last straw, that final small bit of weight that broke the back of the poor overloaded camel.
When one is grasping at the straw in the bottom of the barrel, there’s just one thing left to do. Look it up. According to the idioms section of The Free Dictionary, “grasping at straws” comes from the image of a person in danger of drowning who clutches at flimsy reeds in a futile attempt to stay above water.
Now there’s a happy and inspiring idiom for you. Because if you are going under for the second or third time, grasping at some frail reed gives you only a slim chance. Will it be enough to save you? Fat chance of that.