In 1819 Asher Marx (no relation to Groucho) wrote a letter to Moses Myers of Norfolk, Virginia complaining about his money problems, saying that his credit would have been sufficient to support his family but Wilson & Cunningham “left me in the Lurch” for $40,000. Did they really use that expression in the early 19th century? Was Asher the one who coined the phrase? Does the Special Collections Archive have an important piece of etymological history?
Not likely. According to the Dictionary of English Etymology, the phrase was around for over two hundred years by the time the letter was written. It originates from the French game of ‘lourche,’ a dice and board game similar to backgammon that was last played in the 17th century. If a player was left in a hopeless position, they were said to be “in the lurch.”
And in 1596 the phrase was used in a line from Thomas Nashe’s Have With You to Saffron Walden: “Whom he also procured to be equally bound with him for his new cousins apparence to the law, which he neuer did, but left both of them in the lurtch for him.”
The term is also used in cribbage, where players may be “lurched” or “left in the lurch” if they have not reached a certain point total by the time their opponent counts out. If playing for stakes, the loser has to pay double.
“Lurch” eventually took on the meaning of a difficult position, and to be left in one by your friends indicated being abandoned to unexpected problems. Asher Marx certainly had problems, about 40,000 of them!
Cecile Glendening, is a volunteer in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, and is currently making the Myers Papers (II) more accessible. You can read the full text of Asher Marx’s letter in the William & Mary Digital Archive.