TIL: You can 'eke out' a bad situation

« previous post | next post »

I've always associated the phrase eke out with cases where what's eked out is something good. That's the implication of the Merriam-Webster entry:

1: to make up for the deficiencies of : SUPPLEMENT
eked out his income by getting a second job
2: to make (a supply) last by economy

And similarly from the Wiktionary entry:

1. (transitive) To supplement.
The old man eked out his pension by selling vegetables from his garden.
2. (transitive) To obtain with difficulty or effort.
He eked out a living selling vegetables from the garden.

Wiktionary's etymology supports this view:

From obsolete eke (“to add to, augment; to increase”) + out.

But in a recent story by Michelle Goldberg  ("Leopards Eat Kevin McCarthy’s Face", NYT 1/4/2023), what's eked out is a humiliating failure:

Kevin McCarthy nurtured the spirit of reactionary nihilism in the Republican Party, first by trying to harness the energy of the Tea Party for his own ambition, and then by his near-total capitulation to Donald Trump. Now the chaotic forces he abetted have, at least for the moment, derailed his goal of becoming House speaker, subjecting him to multiple public humiliations at what was supposed to be his moment of triumph.

It is still possible that McCarthy will manage to eke this thing out by making even more concessions to the growing bloc of Republicans who oppose him.

Here "this thing" is definitely not something to be made to last or supplemented — this eke out seems to mean something like "salvage". That's consistent with M-W's "make up for the deficiencies of", except that I'm used to the deficiencies in question being desirable things like money, food, or water, which are eked out by careful rationing or supplementation. Ms. Goldberg's  idea is that Mr. McCarthy will "make up for the deficiencies" of his "multiple public humiliations" by ending them, not by making them last longer or supplementing them with other failures.

The "salvage" sense of eke out is rare at best, but I've found at least one other example, from Politico in 2012:

If all the Democrats eke out the remaining uncalled races, they will pick up eight total seats this cycle.



  1. VVOV said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 8:49 am

    In “It is still possible that McCarthy will manage to eke this thing out”, I read “this thing” as referring to winning the House speakership, which would then be “made to last” for the duration of his term, so I don’t quite see how it is so different from the usual sense of the word. It also fits the second Wiktionary definition quoted, “to obtain with difficulty or effort”.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 8:55 am

    @VVOV — You're probably right. But my misunderstanding raises the question of why we don't see eke out evolvingg in the direction of "salvage".

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 9:42 am

    My read is like that of VVOV, but on an only tangentially-related note, I was pleased to hear a CNN anchor describe Democrats in the state of ‘array’ as compared to the GOP’s state of ‘disarray.’ Back-formation at its best.

  4. Peter CS said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 11:46 am

    It does depend on what exactly 'this thing' is, but if we were to understand it as 'the election of a speaker' than I think McCarthy is eking it out in the sense of stretching it as far as possible. But I (BrEng speaker) feel that is eking the definition beyond normal limits.

  5. SlideSF said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

    I have always wondered about the exact meaning of the word eke. In particular, when encountering it in the works of Anthony Burgess. For instance, in A Dead Man in Deptford, he has Christopher Marlowe saying " I must create men and women, and eke create voices for them, but they are not my voices." I can see how this might mean "in addition", but somehow something appears to be missing from this usage to the current meaning of "eke out".

  6. Rick Rubenstein said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 1:10 pm

    The context in which I hear "eke out" most often is in sports reporting, where it's common to see, e.g., "Denver managed to eke out a win." Perhaps based on this, I've always taken "eke" to mean "barely accomplish", which does fit with the McCarthy situation.

  7. David L said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 1:17 pm


    Etymologically, 'eke' means 'also' — as in the beginning of the Canterbury tales:

    Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breethe Inspired hath in every holt and heethe / The tendre croppes

    I imagine Burgess was being deliberately archaic, but whether Marlowe would actually have used 'eke' in that sense I don't know.

  8. Paul Garrett said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 2:54 pm

    I've been aware of the "eke out" use and also of the middle (?) English "eek" meaning "also". Could anyone more expert here assure me (?) that these are simply different words? :)

  9. KevinM said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 4:23 pm

    I have seen (and a quick Google search confirms) that the expression is sometimes misspelled "eek out." Somehow, that seems right, as in "Eek! We made it!"

  10. RfP said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:03 pm

    @ Paul Garrett:

    I’m no expert, but Oxford (NOAD), American Heritage and Merriam-Webster all basically agree that they have different origins, as stated in Merriam-Webster’s etymologies for the adverb and the verb:

    History and Etymology
    Middle English, from Old English ēac; akin to Old High German ouh also, Latin aut or, Greek au again

    Middle English, from Old English īecan, ēcan; akin to Old High German ouhhōn to add, Latin augēre to increase, Greek auxein

  11. JPL said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:18 pm

    I think VVOV, Peter CS and Rick Rubenstein are on the right track.

    Tentatively and roughly, the verb 'eke' in its two-word verb+particle form ("eke out") seems to be typically used, at least in the modern language, to describe a situation in which an agent gains success in a purposeful task by a small margin by applying ((i.e., "by means of") a difficult process. So what is achieved (i.e., "eked out") is success in a task, such as a win in a contest, as opposed to "thing-objects" or concrete outcomes resulting from the process. The "success in a task" aspect seems to be an essential element in what is focused in the description.

    'salvage', on the other hand, seems to be used to describe catastrophic situations of potentially total loss in which a concerned agent nevertheless succeeds in saving some aspects of the situation from loss. So, while the "salvage" situation involves a successful end-state (telicity), what is saved (i.e., "salvaged") is some part of the catastrophic situation; so "object (or result) saved from loss" (e.g., a photo album, McCarthy's dignity) is in focus.

    Just a first take, subject to revision.

  12. JPL said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:27 pm

    P.S., I'm not saying there aren't other senses for 'eke out', just that this seems to be the relevant sense in this case.

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:33 pm

    To me, the primary meaning of ‘to eke out’ is stretch out or make a limited supply of something last, extended to eking out a living, where money or food is in short supply.
    So I initially understand McCarthy to be keeping his candidature, and his hopes, alive. But perhaps it does carry the US meaning of obtaining a win, or something else, with difficulty.

    @Paul Garrett
    They appear to have come from very similar Old English words, eaca and eac, and to have originated from the same root with the meaning of (an) increase (‘in addition’ is a synonym of ‘also’).

  14. Bloix said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:41 pm

    Also means in addition. To eke out means to add a little bit to what you've already got. I don't see why anyone is searching for different etymologies for slightly different meanings of what is clearly the same word.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 6:55 pm

    Wiktionary seems to hesitate whether the adverb ‘eke’ came from PIE *h2ewg- (to enlarge, increase) or *h2ew- (away from or again) + *ge- (intensifier); to my mind ‘also, in addition’ is much closer to the former root.

    Nobody has so far mentioned ‘an ekename’, now changed into’ ‘a nickname’.

  16. VVOV said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 7:57 pm

    @Rick Rubenstein

    I also think of "eke out a win/victory" in a sports context, where "eke out" can be glossed as "barely achieve", as the prototypical example of this verb.

    In contrast, it seems that for speakers like @Mark Liberman and @Philip Anderson, the more prototypical example is like the first sentence in the Wiktionary entry, "The old man eked out his pension by selling vegetables from his garden", where the key sense of "eke out" is to extend or stretch the usage of a limited resource.

    It seems like both senses of "eke" are well attested, but perhaps this is the nut of why the Kevin McCarthy sentence seems marked/unusual to some folks in this discussion but not to others.

  17. wanda said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 8:19 pm

    Yeah, I am with the people who are saying he is "eking out" the speakership or votes. The opinion piece assumes that you know that McCarthy is begging Republican House members for their votes. The sentence about "eke this thing out" is not about the humiliations and failures discussed in the previous paragraph; it's about his laborious efforts to win the speakership.

  18. JPL said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 3:26 am


    That's what appears to be the case here: the "other sense of 'eke out'" that I hinted at above being the use that describes a situation where means is stretched to fit needs (what is "eked out" is the means). My point was that it is probably the "barely achieved success in a task" sense that is the one intended by Goldberg, as well as in the example from Politico at the end of the OP.

  19. JPL said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 4:17 am

    BTW, this case demonstrates again the distinctions among the notions of: 1) what is intended to be expressed by the speaker who utters the sentence; 2) the hearer's interpretation of what the speaker intended to express by the sentence; and 3) the critical (in the Kantian sense) judgment of what the uttered sentence expresses wrt (as a possible instance of) the (relatively objective) norms for the language system, in this case the lexical categories (i.e., the "meanings" of lexemes). So what is it that makes possible the difference in senses expressed by the single lexeme in different uses?

  20. Gunnar H said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 4:51 am


    The two senses don't seem that different to me. Both have connotations of barely getting by/succeeding, of struggling to reach the required level. (The phrase that comes immediately to mind for me is "to eke out a meager existence.")

    There's an interesting parallel in Norwegian, where the cognate is øke (auke or auka in Nynorsk and dialect), which is the common word for "increase." There is a term matauk (literally "food increase") that means to supplement one's food supply by foraging, hunting or fishing. In the past this was often a necessity for many, and I think the word can still have connotations of poverty (though nowadays it is often used neutrally or positively, perhaps sometimes jocularly).

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    I think that the “eke out a win” usage is specifically American, or at least not present in British English. See the second usage here:

  22. Kate Bunting said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 12:39 pm

    William Cowper wrote of his character John Gilpin (1782) that 'a train-band captain eke was he', so I don't see why Christopher Marlowe wouldn't have used the word.

  23. TIC Redux said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 3:23 pm

    Sadly, I've been away from Language Log for waaay too long… But not long enuff to be unwary of misappropriating a comment thread — so, a thousand apologies in advance, folks… But would someone be so kind as to enlighten me as to what the "TIL" at the start of this post's title represents?… And, more crucially, would someone let me know how to properly
    "Ask Language Log" a question?… Many thanks…

  24. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 3:32 pm

    You can ask Language Log a question by writing an e-mail to Mark Liberman (author of this post), Victor Mair (author of this comment), or anyone else at Language Log headquarters.

  25. Gunnar H said,

    January 6, 2023 @ 6:07 pm

    TIL="Today I Learned"
    It's a fairly common Internet abbreviation.

  26. AG said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 6:30 am

    I think modern american usage of "eke out a win" is almost totally unconnected with the historical usages where "eke" meant "also" (like german "auch", which has been a good way for me to parse things like "ekename"/nickname).

    In my opinion, in US "eke out a win", "eke" has been assumed to be a cousin of "squeeze", "squeak", or "sneak".

    "eke out a win" thus simply means to narrowly squeeze or squeak your way to victory. I think that's what the political quote was saying.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 7, 2023 @ 9:45 am

    One more AmEng set of native ears for the position that the "eke out a [narrow] win" sportswriting sense seems unremarkable and unmarked. Except the OP suggests that AmEng native-speaker myl didn't recognize that sense, or at least didn't parse the particular usage as an obvious application/extension of that sense, which is I suppose interesting.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 4:19 am

    (also American)

    I see the usage in the post as a pretty unremarkable extension of "eke out a victory". A victory is one of two things that can be eked out, the other being a living. As such, I would accept the idea upthread of "eking out a meager existence" [= living], but "eking out a pension" seems ungrammatical to me.

    I don't see eking out a living and eking out a victory as being separate senses of the word; in both cases I would understand it as meaning "barely achieve [the state in question]"; the team eking out a victory would have lost without some sort of heroic effort, and similarly a person eking out a living would have died some time ago without a similar heroic effort.

  29. Philip Anderson said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 12:02 pm

    @Michael Watts
    For me, although I can see the logic behind the extension, the big difference between eking out a living or meagre existence and eking out a victory is that the former is a continuous process, the latter more of a moment, not achieved until the final whistle.
    But eking out a pension actually seems closer to the (for me) primary sense of making a limited supply go further, by in this case literally adding to it.

RSS feed for comments on this post