The Grammarphobia Blog

Well, clutch the pearls!

Q: This is from a posting on Care2 about funding for the Senate campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown: “Plenty of politicians pearl-clutch over the impact of Citizens United but complain that they are helpless to do anything about it.” Can you explain the phrase “pearl-clutch”?

A: The verbal phrase “pearl-clutch” and several similar expressions, including “pearl clutching,” “clutch my pearls,” and “clutch the pearls,” are often accompanied by a gesture suggesting the clutching of an imaginary string of pearls.

These expressions, with or without the gesture, usually refer to surprise or shock of one sort or another—real shock, mock shock, amused shock, awed shock, or shock over something that’s not considered really shocking.

But this is an evolving usage and in the posting you cited from the social network Care2, the lawyer-writer Jessica Pieklo uses “pearl-clutch,” minus the shock, to mean carry on or grumble about something.

Pieklo praises Warren and Brown for trying to reduce the impact of the Citizens United case on their Senate race, but then says (in the sentence you cite) that a lot of other politicians just kvetch about the Supreme Court ruling without doing anything about it.

You won’t find any of these relatively new pearl-clutching expressions in the Oxford English Dictionary, standard dictionaries, or general slang reference books—at least not yet.

But you can find them in some works on gay slang, including Speaking in Queer Terms (2003), edited by William L. Leap and Tom Boellstorff, a collection of essays about the globalization of gay men’s English.

So did these pearl-clutching expressions originate among gay men?

Well, Speaking in Queer Terms gives several examples of gay men using them in the sense of shock, surprise, and awed admiration, but it doesn’t include any dates.

However, 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.”

Of course 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.”

Although the usual image is of a shocked woman doing the pearl-clutching, we found a couple of references in Google Books to male clutching, including a strange one from Arabian Antic, a 1938 book by Ladislas Farago about Jews in the Arab world.

In a chapter on Yemen, Farago describes a rabbi whose “skinny fingers clutched the pearls of a rosary” while “his withered lips sucked the tube of a gigantic” hookah.

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