We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Does It Mean to Be down and out?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

Down and out is a common English expression, meaning the state of poverty or destitution. Originating with a boxing term in the early 20th century, it has since been used in the titles of popular books, movies, and music. It is one of several English phrases employing the word down to convey emotional or financial deprivation, including downbeat, down at the heels, and downtrodden. It can also mean physically incapacitated, a definition that harks back to the phrase’s beginnings but is rarely used in modern times.

Boxing, a competitive sport involving regulated fist fighting, has been popular since the era of ancient Greece. It enjoyed a resurgence in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which time most modern rules, techniques, and expressions originated. The phrase down and out is first recorded in 1901 and simply meant that a losing boxer was unconscious, having been knocked out by his opponent. The knockout is a common conclusion to many boxing matches. Down and out is one of many boxing phrases that have become common expressions outside the ring; others include down for the count, blow by blow, and throw in the towel.

Soon after achieving popularity as a sporting phrase, down and out came into general use as a term for anyone suffering from poverty. Figuratively, it means that a person has been defeated by harsh economic circumstances, just as a boxer can be defeated by a stronger opponent. It gained widespread use during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many people around the globe were struck by poverty. Its use, however, slightly predates the start of the Depression in 1929. In 1923, songwriter Jimmy Cox wrote “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which became a hit for blues legend Bessie Smith in 1929.

The song, about a former millionaire fallen on hard times, struck a chord with many people who were in similar circumstances. Like the later blues standard “God Bless the Child,” it laments that those without money often find themselves friendless as well. In 1933, British author George Orwell published his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London. It is a record of his impoverished life in the two cities during the 1920s. Orwell, of course, later went on to international fame as the author of Animal Farm and 1984.

In 1986, actors Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss starred in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, about a homeless man who finds himself welcomed into the wealthy California neighborhood. The hit film was the first R-rated movie ever released by the family-friendly Walt Disney studio. In 1970 and again in 1992, rock legend Eric Clapton covered “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” The song has also been performed by Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart, and B.B. King, among others, becoming a celebrated blues and rock standard.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.