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What Does “a Day Late and a Dollar Short” Mean?

Have you ever heard the phrase “a day late and a dollar short” and wondered what it means?  If English isn’t your first language, understanding idioms is probably a challenge. Even native English speakers can find idioms to be fairly tricky. One reason why they are confusing is that the words used in them don’t reflect the phrase’s intended meaning. 

Today we will be looking at the age-old idiom “a day late and a dollar short.” In addition to describing what it means, we will discuss how it originated and how you can use it in your writing! 

What Does the Phrase Mean? 

“A day late and a dollar short” is a colloquial phrase that has been in American English for decades. In its basic sense, it essentially translates to “too little too late”, which is more simple idiom. In comparison to the latter phrase, “a day late and a dollar short” suggests that someone missed out on something because they were tardy and didn’t put in enough effort.

The phrase can be traced back to a printed document from around 1939. More specifically, the phrase can be traced to impoverished communities in the South, where it is still commonly used today. As mentioned, the phrase is specifically used in American English by American speakers. Thus, you are not likely to encounter it in any other dialect, such as British English.

​Examples Using a Day Late and a Dollar Short”

  • The DEA was a day late and a dollar short; they got there too late. – Vice. 
  • “This proposal is a day late and a dollar short,” Michael J. Copps, a commissioner who has been an outspoken opponent of Mr. Powell’s efforts, said in a statement. – The New York Times. 
  • “It’s a day late and a dollar short,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. – The New York Times.

Here are some more common phrases you can learn about:  All Riled Up, To Touch Base, Thick As Thieves.

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By Ryan Fisher

Ryan holds degrees from Pacific Lutheran University and specializes in proofreading, editing, and content writing with an emphasis on business communication.

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