broken reed


broken reed (idiom)
/ˈbroʊ.kən riːd/


  • a person or thing that is weak, ineffectual, or unreliable as a support or means of help.
  • someone or something too weak to rely on.
  • someone or something that is not trustworthy or dependable in times of need.
  • a person or thing that is considered to be an unreliable support or resource.
  • a weak or unreliable support.

Example Sentences

  1. Depending on him during the crisis felt like leaning on a broken reed.
  2. She quickly realized that the promise was nothing more than a broken reed.
  3. The outdated software proved to be a broken reed during the crucial data transfer.
  4. His assurances turned out to be a broken reed when the project faced challenges.
  5. The team’s defense was a broken reed against the opponent’s strong offense.

Origin and History

The phrase “broken reed” has its most significant origins in biblical scripture, specifically highlighting the unreliability of certain allies and the compassionate nature of the Messiah. Over time, it has evolved into a metaphor for anything or anyone that is unreliable or weak, finding a place in both literary works and the common vernacular.

Biblical Roots

One of the most widely accepted origins of “broken reed” is its appearance in the Bible, specifically in the book of Isaiah 36:6 (KJV). In this context, the phrase is used metaphorically to describe the unreliability of relying on Egypt for support:

“Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.”

The passage above highlights the idea of leaning on something that appears sturdy but ultimately fails, causing harm instead of providing support.

Historical Usage

The idiom was first recorded in the English language around 1593. Early references include translations of Latin texts, emphasizing the idea of unreliable supports akin to a broken reed. These texts warned against trusting flimsy, unreliable supports, reinforcing the imagery of a reed, which, when broken, fails to provide the necessary support.

Literary Appearances

The phrase has also appeared in various literary works over the centuries, further embedding it in the English language. For instance, in Edmund Morris’s writings about Theodore Roosevelt, he refers to sentimentality as “the most broken reed on which righteousness can lean,” using the metaphor to criticize the reliability of overly emotional decisions.

Other Theories

While the biblical origin is the most documented, some theories suggest that the phrase could have emerged independently in different cultures due to the universal nature of the imagery. Reeds are common in many environments, and their fragility when broken makes them a natural metaphor for unreliability.

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