Them’s the Breaks

By Maeve Maddox

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Including an extract from Boris Johnson’s recent resignation speech, a reader suggested that a post on the expression “them’s the breaks” might be in order.

I was a bit puzzled, considering that the expression is quite common. I was surprised that the out-going British Prime Minister, a classical scholar, graduate of Oxford’s Balliol College, would use such an informal expression—an Americanism at that—in such a formal context.

It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister. … I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.

Following the speech, a flurry of tweets expressed confusion as to what the retiring Prime Minister had meant by saying, “them’s the breaks.’”

A BBC article included some of the pleas for an explanation:

What does them’s the breaks even mean?? I’m lost on that one.

I missed the ‘thems the break’ thing and now everyone is saying it. Please can someone explain what it means?

Hi I’m from Colombia and I have no idea what ‘thems the break’ means. Can someone explain? Please, I’m so lost.

Thems the breaks?? What does that mean I don’t understand British English.

Origin
“Them’s the breaks” comes from the game of pool.

As the game begins, the balls are racked in a triangular frame. The frame is removed and one of the players takes the first shot. This is called “the break.” The balls go rolling around the table and land in random positions. The players must then make do with where the balls have landed.

Sometimes, the balls are lined up in such a way as to make it easy to take the desired shot. But if the balls are not in favorable positions, there’s nothing a player can do to change them.

The idiom describes a situation in which something not only does not go according to hopes or expectations, but is a fait accompli, a done deal. One can only accept disappointment and move on.

Still, I remain surprised that Johnson’s expression caused such a media uproar.

As may be expected of an American slang term, it has a wide use in the US. For example, a TV comedy series called Con Man has an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks.” A former Disney series called The Owl House had an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks, Kids,” and there’s a song by John Robert Matz with the same title.

But the phrase is not unknown outside US English. I have seen it used in the sports pages of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Them’s the breaks, I suppose, but we can more than hold our heads up high, considering we were the only team in the whole competition to come from outside the respective countries’ top tiers.

The New Zealand Film Commission has produced a dramatized documentary titled, Them’s the Breaks, based “on the experiences of a group of young Māori women in New Zealand.

I suspect that Johnson’s use of the expression ruffled so many feathers because the phrase is ungrammatical. Perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten quite so much attention had he said any of the following:

That’s life!

It is what it is.

or even,

C’est la vie.

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2 Responses to “Them’s the Breaks”

  • venqax

    Now the Brits will have to ask what “pool” is. It’s always something. And often they know, they just pretend they don’t. But… the breaks.

  • ApK

    @venqax, Indeed, I was thinking the professed confusion seemed a bit disingenuous. I suspect the media coverage is more about politics than language.

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