Dirty Pool

Dirty pool is an idiom that came into use in the mid-twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, close but no cigar, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression dirty pool, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

Dirty pool describes actions that are underhanded, not fair, dishonest, taking an unfair advantage through devious means. The idiom dirty pool is often used in politics to mean smearing or slurring the reputation of an opponent. The word pool, in this case, refers to the game of pool, which involves striking balls with a cue on a felted table. The origin of the idiom dirty pool is somewhat in question, with some attributing it to Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny published in 1951: “I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court.” However, the idiom has been found in documents dating back as far as 1918, and may go back a bit farther. Pool is a game that has been played since around the turn of the twentieth century, evolved from billiards.


CNN’s Chris Cuomo called this “dirty pool” as yesterday was the eve of Good Friday and Passover.  (The National REview)

Some say his bringing clinical language into his battle tweets may be dirty pool, even if the listed traits of the disorder may sound remarkably accurate.  (The Chicago Tribune)

“So that smacks to me as a little dirty pool on the part of the Democrats.” (The Tampa Bay Times)

It’s dirty pool that hides what the Legislature is up to and makes it harder for the public to keep track of its own government. (The Tulsa World)

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