Down at the Heels – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Down at heels is an idiom used figuratively in the English language. Idioms are words and phrases used in a manner that is figurative compared to their literal uses. They help create relationships between an author and their audience and provide details for comprehensive understanding.

Let’s look closer at the origins and meaning behind the idiom down at the heels.

What Is the Meaning of Down at the Heels?

Down at the Heels and Down at Heels Ngram
Down at the heels and down at heels usage trend.

Down at the heels, also called down at heels, is an idiom used to describe someone or something who is not prosperous or has sustained a run of bad luck that has left them poverty-stricken.

In short, it means to be impoverished.

Down at Heels Sentence Examples

Down at the Heels – Idiom Origin Meaning
  • Some of the stores in the old neighborhood look down at the heels, but new funding has helped update the outdated buildings.
  • After she lost her job, she was regularly down at the heels until she decided to take control of her future.
  • The old bookstore, once a vibrant literary hub, now appeared down at heels, with dusty shelves and faded signage.
  • As soon as Danny lost his job, he started looking down at heels; his once well-tailored suits were now replaced with shabby clothes.

Is Down at Heels Hyphenated?

When used as an adjective before a noun, the phrase is hyphenated, as in down-at-the-heels or down-at-heel. Multi-word adjectives placed before nouns should be hyphenated to present a single descriptive term or phrase.

For example:

  • It was sad driving through the down-at-the-heels neighborhood where I once had lived and played as a child.
  • This was the first time we ended up staying at a real down-at-the-heels motel despite the area once being well-off and financially stable.
  • After years of neglect, the once prestigious building now stood as a down-at-heel shadow of its former grandeur.

Down at the Heels Origins

Down at the Heels Ngram
Down at the heels usage trend.

Like many idioms, it can be hard to narrow down exactly when they were first used literally and figuratively.

The idea of being well-heeled, which means you are wealthy enough to afford heeled and well-soled shoes, goes back thousands of years. In contrast, down at heels means the heel or sole of a shoe is worn down, indicating poor finances or having fallen on hard times.

The wearing of shoes with worn-down heels is commonly used as a mark of destitution. The first documented use of the phase down at heels was in 1732 in William Darrell’s “A Gentleman Instructed in the Conduct of a Virtuous and Happy Life:

“Sneak into a corner … down at heels and out at elbows.”

Let’s Review

Down at the heels is an idiom that originates from the 18th century. It is a phrase used to express the impoverishment of somebody or something. It can be used to describe a run of bad luck or something or somebody who is looking shabby or run down.

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