Are there any differences in the meaning of or when we use the idioms 'be in deep water' and 'in dire straits'? The definitions in the Cambridge Dictionary are:

  • be in deep water: to be in or get into serious trouble
  • in dire straits: in a very bad situation that is difficult to fix
  • 2
    They're not really used in the same way. You're more likely to be in dire straits because you lack resources - often financial (you lost your job, so you have no money to buy food). But if you're in deep water that means you're facing serious imminent problems (you criticized JK Rowling online, and she's instructed her legal team to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law! :) Feb 17, 2023 at 14:41

2 Answers 2


I think to be in dire straits is to be in immediate and usually obvious danger. You'd almost certainly be aware of the problems you're facing and would just as surely be upset about them. You need help immediately.

If you're in deep water, on the other hand, you could well be blithely unaware of the danger you're in. You might not know the risks you're running, and the danger is not necessarily immediate, but you'd probably be better off turning back.

"You're swimming in deep water" is often a warning, while "I'm in dire straits" is usually the first line of a plea for help.

One rarely hears similar statements with the person switched around: "I'm swimming in deep water!" is not often heard, and nor is "You're in dire straits!"

  • What about the example from "FumbleFingers"? (you criticized JK Rowling online, and she's instructed her legal team to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law! :) Which idiom do you use in this situation? "in deep water" or "in dire straits"? Feb 17, 2023 at 17:21
  • 1
    Well that all very much depends on whether you think she has a case, how long you have before the case comes to court and whether you have any way of settling the issue to Rowling's satisfaction.
    – Jaime
    Feb 17, 2023 at 17:45

It seems to me that you might use "in deep water" for trouble that you can, or could have, avoided. And dire straits for trouble that was unforeseen or unavoidable. Compare the the two examples from Cambridge:

These kids are in dire straits, and the schools are doing nothing to help them!

The trouble the kids are in seems not to be their fault. "Dire straits" is often used for critical financial troubles or other simple problem with no clear solution. So, without out any other context, you might think that the kind of problems that the kids had were related to poverty.

The director knew he'd be in deep water if he didn't mention his wife in his acceptance speech.

This trouble can be avoided.

Moreover "deep water" is the kind of trouble you can get out of (if he doesn't mention his wife, he might still get out of trouble by getting her some flowers). It might be the kind of complex problem, that you can solve by breaking it down into smaller problems. Whereas "dire straits" is more serious and hard to get out of (the kids might be in some kind of cycle of poverty and failure and it is not easy for them to escape)

  • 2
    I don't think that "dire straits" example usage is much good in this context, because it doesn't give us any idea what kind problems the kids are facing. I remain convinced "dire straits" is more associated with poverty, so I actually think that "schoolkids" example would probably be a bad one even if we did know what kind of "help" the schools weren't providing (unless it was free school meals to kids who aren't getting enough to eat). Feb 17, 2023 at 14:55
  • 1
    I don't think it's always about poverty, but it very often is, because poverty, as anyone who's ever suffered it will be aware, so often faces you with serious and acute problems that need solving at once and seem impossible. But you can also imagine a posh Community Group appealing to someone "Please help us! We're in dire straits. We only have twenty four seats and are expecting 60 guests in four hours time!"
    – Jaime
    Feb 17, 2023 at 16:04

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