Down to the Wire – Meaning & Origin

Photo of author

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.

The phrase down to the wire is an idiom, meaning it is a figurative term used to create an interesting and detailed connection to an author’s message different than its literal use.

When something is down to the wire, it means something has been left to the last minute. The expression originates in horse racing but is now a familiar English term used to highlight a close call.

Learn what down to the wire means, where it originated from, and how you can use it in a modern context in speech and writing.

What Is the Meaning of Down the Wire?

Down to the Wire – Meaning Origin

The idiom down to the wire describes a situation in which the outcome is not known or decided until the very last moment. The term once had a literal meaning related to horse racing to express a close call. However, with the invention of flash photography, the phrase is more well-known as a figurative way to highlight the excitement of a last-minute call.

For example:

  • The last game of the championship tournament came down to the wire, leaving spectators gripping the edges of their seats in anticipation of the final score.
  • The seasonal episodes came down to the wire for fans of the show, giving them answers but leaving them wanting more.
  • I shouldn’t have left it down to the wire; as a result, I had to pull an all-nighter to edit and print my final project.

Down to the Wire Origins

Down to the Wire Ngram
Down to the wire usage trend.

Horse races in the latter 1800s used a wire run above the finish line to make it easier to judge which horse’s nose crossed the line first. Before flash photography, it was difficult to discern the winners of a close horse race when horses ran nose to nose. When a race was too close for the casual observer to call, the outcome was said to have come down to the wire.

One of the earliest documentations of the expression occurred in 1884 in The Southern Argus, an Australian newspaper:

“At the quarter there was no particular change, but going down the backstretch all closed up, and there was a terrific race round the, turn and down to the wire, Soprano, staying the longest, and winning by a neck, amidst uproarious applause.”

Although not found in print before the end of the 19th century, like most idioms, the term was likely used long before its publication. It’s not known where it first originated, England, Australia, or America, but it has become a well-known saying in the English vernacular.

In America, the idiom is most frequently cited, starting in the late 1880s. Scribner’s Magazine placed it in print in July 1889:

“As the end of the stand was reached Timarch worked up to Petrel, and the two raced down to the ‘wire,’ cheered on by the applause of the spectators.”

Its figurative use followed soon after it became a known literal saying, leading to its popularity to describe anything left to the last minute.

Let’s Review

The expression down to the wire is an idiom that originated with the literal use of a wire run above the finish line of a horse race to help determine the winner of a closely called race.

First documented in print in the late 1800s, the expression became a popular way to explain the excitement, anxiety and stress of waiting until the last minute to complete something or to describe a situation in which an outcome is unknown or undecided until the last minute.