Give it the old college try is an idiom with a surprising origin. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, 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 like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. 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; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom give it the old college try, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.
To give it the old college try means to put forth one’s very best effort, often to an outsized degree. Usually, but not always, give it the old college try refers to an attempt made to achieve something with a high risk of failure. The expression give it the old college try came not from the college campus, but from the baseball diamond. At the turn of the century, a player was said to give it the old college try when attempting to make a play like a heroic attempt at catching a fly ball that was very far out of the player’s reach. Supposedly, the phrase referenced the enthusiasm of an amateur athlete playing for his college team. The term give it the old college try was quoted in Babe Ruth’s book in the 1920s, and the phrase entered the American language to mean any heroic attempt to achieve something, especially something with a high risk of failure. Related phrases are gives it the old college try, gave it the old college try, giving it the old college try.
There’s nothing wrong with a slapdash film and “Vampires vs. the Bronx” gives it the old college try. (The Rome Sentinel)
I’m all in favor of giving it the old college try (or the old professional try, as the case may be). (The Spokesman-Review)
“Anyone can give it the old college try and sink a lot of money and lose a lot of money fast,” he said. (Reuters)