the church was circling the drains

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Alex Coseff

Senior Member
Czech
Hello,

please, does the idiom the church was circling the drains refer to the fact that fewer and fewer people are members of a particular church or that church members (religious people) are gradually dying?
Many thanks.

G.M.Malliet: Wicked autumn
"Especially in an age where it was felt the church was circling the drains, some people clung to whatever looked certain and solid, making them less able to handle ambiguity and apparent contradiction."
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    It means that the church is dying, Alex. I assume that means that it is no longer popular and that it has been losing members for a long time.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Personally, I can't understand this expression at all. How can a church (cross-shaped) circle anything? To circle something, does that mean to draw a circle round it (i.e. emphasise it? Or to protect oneself from it)? To encircle it (to embrace it - or to protect others from it?). To run in circles round it in panic? To run in circles round it getting closer and closer?

    Totally incomprehensible tho this Bear of Very Little Brain!
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    I think the writer wants us to envision a little church caught in the swirl of water that's going down the drain in the bottom of a bathtub, Keith. I don't know if it's common to say so in the UK, but it's pretty common over here to say that something is "going down the drain" if something is coming to an end or is headed for ruin. I don't know why Malliet chose the plural "drains", though.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I think the writer wants us to envision a little church caught in the swirl of water that's going down the drain in the bottom of a bathtub, Keith. I don't know if it's common to say so in the UK, but it's pretty common over here to say that something is "going down the drain" if something is coming to an end or is headed for ruin. I don't know why Malliet chose the plural "drains", though.

    Yes, I realised it ws a variation on going down the drain but I agree with Keith, nothing is added by saying "circle" except to make a very clumsy image for me as a reader.
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Yes, I realised it ws a variation on going down the drain but I agree with Keith, nothing is added by saying "circle" except to make a very clumsy image for me as a reader.
    That surprises me, Suzi. I immediately see that water circling the drain before it disappears when I read that the church is circling the drains. I've watched bits of paper, twigs, and similar things circle drains before they were sucked up against the grill that covers the drain.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    That surprises me, Suzi. I immediately see that water circling the drain before it disappears when I read that the church is circling the drains. I've watched bits of paper, twigs, and similar things circle drains before they were sucked up against the grill that covers the drain.
    Well, it is not the only thing I have not liked in this book judging it only by the snippets posted by Alex. :)

    To compare the church (and its establishment) to a few hairs circling around a bath-drain seems ludicrous to me. Not only that, but this this is not a direct metaphor but something presented to us as being an idea which "was felt" by some un-named persons.

    Nah, it really does not work for me. Style is a personal thing, after all.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Is "circling the drain" a common expression in AmE, owlman? I see that there are quite a few Google hits for church circling the drain, but it sounds odd and vaguely unpleasant in BrE:).

    (Cross-posted with Suzi)
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Is "circling the drain" a common expression in AmE, owlman? I see that there are quite a few Google hits for church circling the drain, but it sounds odd and vaguely unpleasant in BrE:).

    (Cross-posted with Suzi)
    Hi, Loob. :) I wouldn't say it's common, but I've heard it before.

    Fair enough, Suzi. Malliet certainly seems to love his images and metaphors.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Well we live and learn!

    I also googled "circle the drain" and it seems to have more currency than I knew of before this morning.

    I was especially interested in this one, which I found in a medical slang dictionary, used to describe patients on the verge of death!

    http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/circling+the+drain

    Circling the Drain
    A macabre slang term referring to a patient whose future prospects of life are dim
     
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    Arcadian

    Member
    English - Devon & Cornish dialects
    Is "circling the drain" a common expression in AmE, owlman? I see that there are quite a few Google hits for church circling the drain, but it sounds odd and vaguely unpleasant in BrE:).

    (Cross-posted with Suzi)
    Agreed with both very rude and disrespectful to any religion. No longer the force it was would be a little more tasteful....ah well yet more stranglish to put up with I suppose....
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    For the image required, it does seem wrong to use the plural 'drains'. How can one object be circling more than one drain?
    In any case, to my mind, 'plughole', not 'drain', would be the natural term for such an idea.
     

    Alex Coseff

    Senior Member
    Czech
    Thanks to all of you:)
    Anyway, I've just checked the British National Corpus and surprise, surprise.. there is not a single occurrence of circling the drains (not even drain):D
    However, there are 91 hits for down the drain:)
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    I think the idea with circling the drain is that it's going down slowly, spiraling in to its end, rather than simply plunging to its doom like a canoe going over a waterfall.
     

    Arcadian

    Member
    English - Devon & Cornish dialects
    I think the idea with circling the drain is that it's going down slowly, spiraling in to its end, rather than simply plunging to its doom like a canoe going over a waterfall.
    Rather depends I think on which type of drain you're thinking about....:confused:
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    I think the idea with circling the drain is that it's going down slowly, spiraling in to its end, rather than simply plunging to its doom like a canoe going over a waterfall.
    OK, I'll buy the idea that, for you, that's a valid image. I'd just like to flag the fact that, for a British speaker, this thought would probably be expressed as "Going down the drain/tube(s)" or else "Spiralling down the drain".

    (In fact, it is a spiral isn't it, not a circle?)
     

    Kunio

    Member
    American English
    Is "circling the drain" a common expression in AmE, owlman? I see that there are quite a few Google hits for church circling the drain, but it sounds odd and vaguely unpleasant in BrE:).

    (Cross-posted with Suzi)
    I've never heard that expression. I would just say "going down the drain". I assume the author was just embellishing.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    The use of plural "drains" is the unusual thing here.

    The expression "circling the drain" is quite common (by the sound of it only in the US!) and differs from "going down the drain" because it lasts much longer. It is not a simple embellishment, it is a different meaning. The vortex, for example in a bathtub after the plug is removed, causes something floating to go round and round on the surface of the water above the drain-hole for a long time before it actually goes down the drain. The circular motion is the "figurative symptom" that something is drastically wrong with (whatever is circling the drain) and that eventually it will fail completely - but it hasn't yet failed completely. "Gone down the drain" would be irretrievable and "going down the drain" is happening now. "Circling the drain" is the lead-up period, sometimes a long-drawn-out one before actually disappearing.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    OK, I'll buy the idea that, for you, that's a valid image. I'd just like to flag the fact that, for a British speaker, this thought would probably be expressed as "Going down the drain/tube(s)" or else "Spiralling down the drain".

    (In fact, it is a spiral isn't it, not a circle?)
    Circling the drain indicates the action before it enters the drain. It's still in the tub or sink.

    The odd thing to me is the plural... "circling the drains".
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Last edited:
    As RM1 and Julian has stated, the image is nice in that it conveys something imminent, but not there. "Going down the drain" is not right, here, and "About to go down the drain" isn't very attractive. "Headed down {or' for'} the drain" is not bad.



    "Spiraling towards the drain" seems about right, in that a spiral, in the air, is often leading to a crash. Also something in a whirlpool spirals down.
     
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