Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The government’s announcement this week that it could ban single-use plastic items such as drinking straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers was welcomed by environmental campaigners. Although estimates of use of these items may well be exaggerated – the figure of 8.5 billion plastic straws a year would mean that every person in the UK is using an average of 130, which seems on the high side – there is no doubt that plastic waste is having a devastating effect on marine environments and wildlife. There is considerable public support for a reduction in their use, with some businesses and events announcing that they will stop using these items without waiting for a government ban. In fact, a ban could be some time coming, as despite the warm words of the Environment Secretary, what will actually happen is simply a consultation on the possibility of bringing in a ban. The same has happened with plastic drinks bottles, where a much-touted scheme to charge a deposit will not come into effect until 2020.

Of course, most of these items can easily be replaced by biodegradable versions – wooden drinks stirrers or paper straws – just as the previously ubiquitous plastic carrier bag has largely been replaced by larger and more durable versions, or by people’s own environmentally friendly shoppers.

The main meaning of straw is, of course, the yellow stems of dried crops such as wheat, a familiar part of life in earlier times and used for making items from hats to roofs to, yes, bags. A straw poll is a quick assessment of people’s opinions, while a straw man is a target for fake outrage (or a character in The Wizard of Oz). If you draw or get the short straw, you are landed with an unpleasant or difficult task, while straws in the wind are signs that something significant may be going to happen. The final straw, or the one that breaks the camel’s back, is the last in a series of events that lead to an angry or violent reaction. In such a situation, you might well clutch at straws.

The meaning of ‘a long thin paper or plastic tube that you use for drinking’ came into English relatively late, in the 1850s. I like to picture Victorian families on their days out, charmed by the novelty of sucking their lemonade through a brightly-coloured paper tube. The word itself is much older and has been in English since the earliest times, being of Germanic origin and related to Dutch ‘stroo’ and German ‘Stroh’.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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