Dirty Pool – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Let’s take a quick look at an expression about underhanded tactics — playing dirty pool. It probably brings to mind a muddy pool table, but this expression has nothing to do with dirt at all! So, shall we get our hands a little bit figuratively dirty and break down the true meaning of this phrase? Let’s get to it!

Playing Dirty Pool Meaning Explained

Dirty Pool – Idiom Meaning Origin 1

We use the phrase playing dirty or playing dirty pool to describe engaging in unfair, deceitful, or unethical actions, especially to gain an advantage in a situation or against an opponent. So, if someone’s playing dirty, they’re not playing by the rules, and their actions could be considered morally dubious.

Just think of a hockey game, for example. (Shush, I’m Canadian). When a player from one team shoulder-checks another to get a goal or a marathon runner trips another participant so they can cross the finish line first, that’s playing dirty or playing dirty pool.

Origin and Etymology of Playing Dirty Pool

Playing Dirt Ngram
Playing dirty usage trend.

The term playing dirty comes from sports where certain tactics that violate the rules are considered dirty. It then transitioned to general use to describe any underhanded or deceitful tactics in various situations.

Playing dirty pool is a variant of this idiom, with pool referring metaphorically to the game of life or competition, not the billiard game. Many attribute it to Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny,” published in 1951: “I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court.”

Synonyms for Playing Dirty Pool

Keep things interesting for your readers with these alternative ways to say playing dirty pool.

  • Underhanded tactics
  • Devious behavior
  • Sneaky tricks
  • Unscrupulous methods
  • Dirty tricks

Playing Dirty and Playing Dirty Pool Examples in a Sentence

Dirty Pool – Idiom Meaning Origin
  • In politics, it’s common for opponents to accuse each other of playing dirty pool. They’ve been doing it for decades.
  • Those other authors are playing dirty, spreading rumors to discredit our bookish campaign.
  • Mike, I don’t appreciate you playing dirty pool just to get what you want.
  • The company was accused of playing dirty by stealing a competitor’s whole business plan and copying it.
  • My ex-husband is playing dirty pool in the court case, using personal information to manipulate the outcome and get what he wants out of this divorce.
  • Sure, they won the game, but they definitely played dirty to get there.
  • Jane was playing dirty pool by sabotaging her colleague’s year-long project.
  • If they continue to play dirty pool, they’ll lose their credibility in the publishing industry.
  • You might think that playing dirty will help you win, but it won’t earn you respect. I can promise you that.
  • I don’t want to win by playing dirty pool. I want to win fair and square.

Don’t Play Dirty

So, now you can see that playing dirty pool isn’t about muck and grime but about using underhanded tactics to gain an edge. It’s an expressive phrase we use to help paint a vivid picture of someone’s unethical actions. Stay tuned for more of my explorations into the world of idioms, and keep playing fair in your word games!