Idioms, often called expressions or sayings, richly enhance the English language. While many very common idioms have been a staple in the language for decades and even centuries, other idioms are relatively new and reflect some aspects of modern culture. One such idiom is “down and dirty,” which can mean one of two things. People use it to describe a situation or individual who operates in a deceitful or devious manner, but it also works as a euphemism for sex, particularly sex that is in some way wild, uncontrolled, or illicit.
“Down and dirty” did not come into popular use until the mid to late 1980s. Its use spread very rapidly as it seemed to reflect issues in what was then current culture. The actions of shady politicians were called “down and dirty,” and public attention to and curiosity about a wide range of sexual practices had recently become the subject of films, books, and other media, putting it front and center to the eyes of both Americans and the British.
Although this expression is relatively recent, there is no clear absolute source of origin that linguists have been able to find. Several theories abound. Some believe the phrase “down and dirty” entered common speech as a result of the film Dirty Dancing. This movie, which starred Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, explored the nature of prohibited sexual attraction through the medium of dance. Swayze, as a dance instructor, teaches Grey sultry dance moves, some of which bring the dancers low to the ground as they grind their hips together.
Another theory holds that “down and dirty” stems from the card game called poker. In this game, some of the cards are dealt facedown, while others are laid faceup. The last of seven cards dealt is placed facedown. Until each player receives the final card, it is impossible to anticipate how the game will play out. A bad card can effectively besmirch an otherwise positive hand, thus “dirtying” it.
Yet another possible source of the expression can be found in sports. Sports enthusiasts may be very involved with their particular games of choice without actually participating in game play. Whether they watch a game on television or live, they do not “dirty their hands” because they aren’t the ones chasing the ball, leaping, or tackling. It is the players themselves, in this interpretation of the expression, who actually get “down and dirty.”