By Yoichi Oishi

2019-01-06 21:37:38 8 Comments

I came across with a phrase, “clutch one’s pearls” in the headline of the Hill (January 6). It reads :

“Dem lawmaker: ‘Kind of odd’ for GOP to be ‘clutching their pearls’ over profane call to impeach Trump” and followed by the following paragraph: Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I) on Sunday scoffed at the controversy surrounding Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) profane vow to impeach President Trump, accusing Republicans critical of the freshman lawmaker’s comment of hypocrisy.

I was unfamiliar with the phrase, “clutch one’s pearls,” and I found the definition of “clutch your pearls” in Cambridge Dictionary as follows:

Disapproving to behave as if you are very shocked, especially when you show more shock than you really feel in order to show that you think something is morally bad.

Google Ngram doesn’t accommodate neither clutch your pearls or one’s pearls.

So my questions:

  1. From around what time this phrase started to be in use?

  2. What is the origin of this phrase?

  3. Is it a popular phrase?
  4. Can a man – males seldom wear a pearl necklace - use this phrase in such a way as, “I clutched my pearls when I heard Tom was fired from his office yesterday”?


@lbf 2019-01-06 22:09:53

  • From around what time this phrase started to be in use?

    It now appears in OED as a draft addition:

  • Draft additions June 2018

  • Chiefly U.S. to clutch one's pearls and variants: to react with shock or dismay, esp. in response to something considered immoral, underhand, or vulgar. Frequently ironic or humorous.

  • What is the origin of this phrase?

The OED cites this sentence as in its draft. It is dated 1990:

1990 F. Ajaye et al. In Living Color (transcribed from TV programme) 1st Ser. Episode 1 Clutch the pearls, what a sneaky thing to do!

  • Is it a popular phrase?

It appears to be increasing in popularity and usage.

  • Can a man – males seldom wear a pearl necklace - use this phrase in such a way as, “I clutched my pearls when I heard Tom was fired from his office yesterday”?

enter image description here

It's gender neutral as it is a metaphor for humorously or ironically "shocked!" In the cited article, the entire Republican party is accused of clutching their pearls!

@Bent 2019-01-06 22:42:27

This answer is wrong as shown by the other answers. The phrase is far older than the suggested origin of 1990.

@lbf 2019-01-06 22:47:27

@Bent so edited. tks

@Lambie 2019-01-06 22:53:18

The answer is not wrong. It's used by media pundit types discussing politics. To react with shock or dismay is somewhat recent. It's usually used by one person describing another's reaction to something. One doesn't go round using it in the first person generally. Though a humorous-minded person might.

@Will Crawford 2019-02-08 18:01:13

Reading the whole of @Bent's comment, he's saying it's wrong in one aspect, i.e. the dating. The video clip, featuring a fairly obvious single entendre, is less helpful as it's rude joke is not helping to elucidate the original meaning :o)

@Doug Henderson 2019-01-07 10:49:32

I find the many erudite answers compelling, but wrong.

I believe the meaning is much more vulgar. I think it is a euphemism for a fearful attempt to protect a man's genitals (the family jewels) from harm, or for anyone to fearfully protect one's wealth or status (pearl jewelry) from loss or theft.

It suggests that something has triggered a fight or flight response, or a knee jerk reaction.

@Mari-Lou A 2019-01-07 10:58:39

"I believe" is not compelling evidence :) Besides, as you correctly pointed out, men's testicles are sometimes referred to as "the family jewels". I think, "squeezing" or "grabbing" are the more common collocations

@gidds 2019-01-07 12:36:24

That's the meaning I assumed when I saw the question! Which indicates that 1) the phrase isn't at all common (in the UK at least); and 2) its real meaning isn't obvious if you don't already know it.

@SuperBiasedMan 2019-01-07 12:56:16

Do you know of any references to this interpretation? If you had a source, it would lend your answer more credibility.

@michael.hor257k 2019-01-07 13:34:37

One does NOT show disapproval by protecting their genitals.

@Mari-Lou A 2019-01-07 16:00:31

I doubt any living man would compare their "jewels" to that of pearls. Although spherical, pearls tend to be quite small...

@user240918 2019-01-07 16:00:42

This answer really made me laugh. But why would anyone call them..a necklace?

@user240918 2019-01-06 21:57:55

As noted in the following article by Grammarphobia:

People have been literally clutching their pearls in shock or otherwise for a long time. Here, for example, is a citation from a 1910 issue of the Chambers Journal, a weekly magazine that published fiction and nonfiction:

  • “Without being aware that I had stirred, I found myself close to the table. I drew a gasping breath, and my hand went out without any conscious volition and clutched the pearls.”

But the phrase itself became popular years later mainly as a mocking metaphor, meaning “being ostentatiously shocked by something not all that shocking,” especially if the “shock” was feigned or reflected outdated social prejudices:

  • a gay character on the Fox TV show In Living Color is responsible for the earliest example of the usage mentioned in discussions over the last six months on the American Dialect Society’s Linguist List.

  • In an April 15, 1990, sketch, the flamboyant cultural critic Blaine Edwards (played by Damon Wayans) gushes over how daring the producers were to cast a male actor as the female lead in Dangerous Liaisons.

  • When told that Glenn Close is actually a woman, Edwards squeals in mock shock and says, “Well, clutch the pearls! What a sneaky thing to do.”

As suggested in the following extract, the expression is now dated and its usage has largely declined in recent years:

Judging from the instances of “clutch the pearls” and “pearl clutching” that I found in a Nexis search, the expression showed up only periodically through about 2004, almost always as a pun about wealthy women and literal pearls. Take a 2000 episode of World News Tonight in which co-anchor Alison Stewart said there was “a lot of pearl-clutching going on” in the high-end auction business following accusations of criminal price-fixing. The expression then went largely dormant. There are only 16 Google results for “pearl clutching” between Jan. 1, 2000, and Jan. 1, 2004, though it did appear in a 2003 academic work called Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language.


@Michael Harvey 2019-01-06 22:40:18

Metaphors are no respecters of gender conventions. Here in Britain we can say that someone who is confused or upset to the point of incoherence has got his or her "knickers in a twist". I think that Americans might say "don't get your panties in a wad" or something similar. These sayings are definitely not restricted to the sex that conventionally wears knickers or panties. I have heard office workers in Britain say of an annoying male manager that he must be "on the rag" (having a period).

@Matt Samuel 2019-01-06 23:18:26

@Michael It would have a different meaning for a female though, possibly a literal one. Whether it's used on a male or female, "on the rag" is misogynistic.

@Michael Harvey 2019-01-07 16:46:35

Matt Samuel, I think that the very notion that attribution of a female stereotype to a man is an insult is misogynistic.

@tchrist 2019-01-06 23:06:50

In a comment, Janus Bahs Jacquet wrote:

Nei­ther men nor women would be likely to ever say, “I clutched my pearls when…”: this ex­pres­sion is ex­clu­sively (or at least al­most ex­clu­sively) used in pro­gres­sive or non-fi­nite con­struc­tions. It’s also more used to de­scribe other peo­ple than one­self be­cause it’s some­what be­lit­tling. You might hear, “Tom get­ting fired had Sheila clutch­ing her pearls”. You might also hear it used to de­scribe a man, though it tends to carry sex­ist over­tones then: its pe­jo­ra­tive­ness makes it im­ply that he’s weak/over-sen­si­tive/any­thing else stereo­typ­i­cally seen as neg­a­tive fe­male traits.

And in another comment, Lambie wrote:

Gen­er­ally, one says this of oth­ers. Espe­cially, men about men. It's like in the armed ser­vices where the sergeants call the sol­diers "ladies". Same idea.

@Yoichi Oishi 2019-01-06 23:44:54

So, I'm interested in what's you are gonna say.

@tchrist 2019-01-07 00:02:32

@YoichiOishiI had not planned to say any­thing my­self. I just wanted to pre­serve both their re­lated com­ments to ren­der them find­able by searches, be­cause al­though they don’t ad­dress your first three sub­ques­tions, they do ad­dress your fourth and fi­nal sub­ques­tion, the one about whether men could say it and why. It was the most in­ter­est­ing of your set of four, or so it seemed to me, so these seemed worth pre­serv­ing. Should ei­ther au­thor care to de­velop their own an­swer, I shall gladly delete this post, but un­til such time, it is more search­able this way.

@Robusto 2019-01-06 22:07:18

The phrase “clutch one’s pearls” is always used derisively or sarcastically. Basically, it’s a put-down. It suggests a hysterical woman on the verge of a swoon. Moreover, it has an added flavor of an old-time caricature from movies of a bygone generation. Cf. Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie from the ‘30s:

enter image description here

You see Dumont on the left, prim and proper, ready to play the straight role to the comedians’ shenanigans. That might include shock, outrage, or even obliviousness. She might even fall on a couch clutching her pearls.

A man would never say this about himself, except to make a self-deprecatory joke. To say it about him would be tantamount to calling him a hysterical old lady (which is offensive not only to him but to elderly women as well). To say it about a woman would be a sexist put down.

Any way you slice it, utilizing that image to describe anybody is extremely derogatory.

@Yoichi Oishi 2019-01-06 22:34:52

Happy new year! It's a pretty long time to hear from you. Thanks for an intrguing input. I'm still well with this site.

@Michael Harvey 2019-01-06 22:41:34

"males seldom wear a pearl necklace" -- Er, no, Mike, don't make that comment you were thinking of!

@Lambie 2019-01-06 22:42:01

For the record, the expression is not really about oneself. So, either a man or woman can say it. That said, it is always sarcastic. And also somewhat macho....

@Robusto 2019-01-06 23:10:55

@YoichiOishi: 明けましておめでとうございます!

@Robusto 2019-01-07 01:57:30

@MichaelHarvey: What does that comment have to do with my answer? Did you mean to address the question, not my answer?

@Mari-Lou A 2019-01-07 06:53:36

Pearl necklace has also another pornography. I think Michael H was only teasing himself :)

@Mark Amery 2019-01-07 14:22:07

The accusation of sexism here - let alone the idea that using the phrase is specifically derogatory to elderly women as a class - seems bizarre to me. Wearing necklaces isn't something especially correlated with age, as far as I know, so I don't really see why age even comes into it. And in any case, I don't see how use of the term is derogatory to any demographic; negative references to a negative behaviour aren't automatically bigotry just because there's a stereotype associating the behaviour with some demographic group.

@Ian MacDonald 2019-01-07 15:43:53

I had always assumed that this was in reference to rosary beads.

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