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There’s the rub

Q From Paula Conneran-Weig: What does the saying There's the rub mean and what is the origin of the phrase?

A The phrase is Shakespeare’s. It comes from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy:

To die — to sleep.
To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

By rub, Hamlet means a difficulty, obstacle or objection — in this case to his committing suicide.

The origin is the ancient game of bowls (which Americans may know as lawn bowling; nothing to do with tenpin bowling). A rub is some fault in the surface of the green that stops a bowl or diverts it from its intended direction. The term is recorded first a few years before Shakespeare’s time and is still in use. It appears, too, in golf, in the expression rub of the green, which refers to an accident that stops a ball in play — hitting an obstacle or a bystander perhaps — and for which no relief is allowed under the rules.

It later became a broader term for an abstract impediment or hindrance. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from Thomas Nashe’s The First Part of Pasquil’s Apology of 1590: “Some small rubs, as I hear, have been cast in my way to hinder my coming forth, but they shall not profit.” Rub of the green is also used figuratively, but in the sense of something that’s just bad luck and can’t be helped; an example is in James Elroy’s Clandestine: “I’m a deputy district attorney, for the city of Los Angeles. We have the same employer. I would rather be a deputy public defender, but that’s the rub of the green, as Dad would say.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Jul. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 July 2006.