Meaning of Idiom ‘Draw the Short Straw’
To draw the short straw, used metaphorically, means to get chosen to do some unpleasant or disagreeable task. The idiom does not mean that straws were actually drawn, only that someone who didn’t want to do it was chosen. This person could be said to have gotten the short end of the stick, another related idiom.
Draw straws, itself, can be used as an idiom when someone is to be chosen to do something, even though straws are not literally drawn but some other random method is used.
“I drew the short straw at the restaurant today and had to clean the bathroom.”
“I was all set to be chosen for guard duty, but luckily, Simmons drew the short straw.”
Today, we know drawing lots as deciding who will do something by having each person in a group draw a piece of paper from a container, each with something different written on it, such as person’s name. Drawing lots originally meant to draw from cast or thrown straws or pebbles. Another, newer version of drawing lots was to draw straws from the hand. When drawing straws, a bundle of straws is held in the hand with the ends of the straws sticking out of the hand, and the other ends concealed. One of the straws is shorter than the others, but since the protruding ends are held so that they are even, no one can tell which straw it is. Each person chooses a straw to pull out of the hand. The person who chooses the short straw is chosen to perform the task.
Drawing lots dates from the 1400’s but drawing straws is much later, dating from the 1800’s. And older version of both is to draw cuts.
(Source: American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms)
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