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What Does It Mean to Be down and out?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Images By: Xixinxing, n/a, Andrea Izzotti
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Down and out is a common English expression, meaning the state of poverty or destitution. Originating with a boxing term in the early 20th century, it has since been used in the titles of popular books, movies, and music. It is one of several English phrases employing the word down to convey emotional or financial deprivation, including downbeat, down at the heels, and downtrodden. It can also mean physically incapacitated, a definition that harks back to the phrase’s beginnings but is rarely used in modern times.

Boxing, a competitive sport involving regulated fist fighting, has been popular since the era of ancient Greece. It enjoyed a resurgence in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which time most modern rules, techniques, and expressions originated. The phrase down and out is first recorded in 1901 and simply meant that a losing boxer was unconscious, having been knocked out by his opponent. The knockout is a common conclusion to many boxing matches. Down and out is one of many boxing phrases that have become common expressions outside the ring; others include down for the count, blow by blow, and throw in the towel.

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Soon after achieving popularity as a sporting phrase, down and out came into general use as a term for anyone suffering from poverty. Figuratively, it means that a person has been defeated by harsh economic circumstances, just as a boxer can be defeated by a stronger opponent. It gained widespread use during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many people around the globe were struck by poverty. Its use, however, slightly predates the start of the Depression in 1929. In 1923, songwriter Jimmy Cox wrote “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which became a hit for blues legend Bessie Smith in 1929.

The song, about a former millionaire fallen on hard times, struck a chord with many people who were in similar circumstances. Like the later blues standard “God Bless the Child,” it laments that those without money often find themselves friendless as well. In 1933, British author George Orwell published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London. It is a record of his impoverished life in the two cities during the 1920s. Orwell, of course, later went on to international fame as the author of Animal Farm and 1984.

In 1986, actors Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss starred in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, about a homeless man who finds himself welcomed into the wealthy California neighborhood. The hit film was the first R-rated movie ever released by the family-friendly Walt Disney studio. In 1970 and again in 1992, rock legend Eric Clapton covered “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” The song has also been performed by Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart, and B.B. King, among others, becoming a celebrated blues and rock standard.

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