Dire straits meaning and origin story of the band – wiki

Today whenever we hear of “Dire Straits,” it is very likely the first thing that will come to your mind is that British rock band that was very popular between the 1970s and the 1990s. Who can ever forget their hit songs “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life?”

But then again, you have to wonder how did the band come up with the name and what does that term or expression mean in order to make sense of it?

The Origin of “Dire Straits”

“Dire Straits” has its origin in geography. A strait is a narrow body of water situated between two land masses which then connects two larger bodies of water. There are many of these around the world. The world “strait” comes from Middle English word which in turn is derived from Latin that means “to bind tightly.”  This is because there are some straits that are too difficult to sail through because of the narrowness. One wrong move would spell trouble for these seafarers.

The word “dire” comes into play when the waters in these straits are turbulent; and the term often used to describe it is “dire” which is of Latin origin that means “terrible” or “fearsome.”

Thus, whenever mariners would sail across these areas, they would literally be in dire straits. The term has been mentioned in several literature such as Homer’s Iliad:

“To-morrow morning, Juno, if you choose to do so, you will see the son of Saturn destroying large numbers of the Argives, for fierce Hector shall not cease fighting till he has roused the son of Peleus when they are fighting in dire straits at their ships’ sterns about the body of Patroclus.”

There is also another mention of the term in Sun Tzu’s Art of War:

“And if we are able thus to attack an inferior force with a superior one, our opponents will be in dire straits.”

In the modern period, the term was also used in the epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius which was translated by Francis Fawkes in the late 18th century.

“When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.”

Beyond Geography

One theory on how the term became an idiom can be traced to the Bible. This is found in the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament (this is the King James Version of the Bible):

“Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the (dire) straits.” (Lamentations 1:3 KJV).

Although the term was not exactly used, the scholars who translated Hebrew texts considered it to mean “dire straits” when they translated in into English.

Probably the earliest times the idiom was used can be traced toJoseph Thomson’s work, “A Masai Adventure” in the chapter titled Good Words:

“he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.”

Another case were the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal in 1890. Natal is one of the colonies or states that would later form South Africa:

“He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still.”

Probably one of the earliest known use of the expression in the more modern times is attributed to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of this regular speeches to the nation in 1933 at the time of the Great Depression:

“It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.”

Going Back to Dire Straits (the Band)

It is rather clear we can understand how the British band Dire Straits got their name. When the band was formed sometime in 1977, Mark Knopfler invited his flatmates – his brother David, their friend John Illsey, and later Pick Withers to form a band. At the time Mark Knopfler has been performing in various pubs with different bands.

The name of the band was chosen to underscore the time they were struggling financially when they started out. Later on, David Knopfler denied all these. He said they were not facing hard times since they had day jobs back then. But regardless if this is true or not, the rest is history and Dire Straits rose to greatness. They are so successful you could hardly say they are figuratively in “dire straits.”