What Does Finger In The Dike Mean?

Finger in the Dike Meaning

Definition: To try to stop an approaching problem, or to try to stop a small problem from becoming a large problem.

Origin of Finger in the Dike

This expression comes from a popular legend about a young Dutch boy. To understand the story, it is important to have some context about the Netherlands. In this country, much of the land is below sea level. Therefore, the country has many dams to protect their people from flooding.

In the story, a little boy sees a small crack in a dam. He knows that if no one fixes this leak, the crack will grow bigger, and the dam will break. This would cause many people to die. He decides to stop the leak by putting his finger in the hole in the dam. Despite the cold weather, he stays there all night until adults find him and fix the hole.

Although this story is set in Netherlands, it probably originated in America, England, or France. This story started appearing in these three countries in the year 1850. However, the original authorship is unclear.

Because of this origin story, when people use this expression figuratively they often are implying one of several things.

  • There is only one person standing between salvation and complete disaster.
  • Someone is plugging a leak, perhaps of information, crime, or something else.
  • Someone is stopping something, despite danger and difficulty.

Examples of Finger in the Dike

the boy with his finger in the dykeThis example shows two college students using the idiom while discussing their Frisbee team.

Frank: Hey, Karl! Since you’re the team captain, you are the one in charge of accepting new players onto our team. Will you accept Joe?

Karl: Sorry, I can’t do it.

Frank: Why not? I know he’s not very good, but he’s just one person.

Karl: I have to put my finger in the dike. If I let in one bad player, then we’ll have a flood of bad players demanding to play on our team.

dutch boy finger in dikeIn this example, two friends are at the grocery store.

Lily: Grace! Help! I grabbed an apple from the bottom of this pile, and the whole stack started to fall. If I move the whole display will go down!

Grace: Hahaha, you’re just like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Except this time you caused the problem as well as tried to stop it.

More Examples

The excerpt below references the origin of the idiom. The article is about a dam in California that is in danger of collapsing because of erosion. The expression illustrates the major problems caused by a dam failure.

  • “Imagine the little Dutch kid with the finger in the dike,” said Chris Orrock, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. In the story, the child saves the countryside by plugging up the hole that keeps water from rushing in to flood the region. –LA Times

This excerpt is about a political leader who was using his power to stop a political appointment.

  • Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, got a standing ovation when he said he has his “finger in the dike” to block Merrick Garland from being confirmed to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. –Washington Post

Summary

The idiom finger in the dike is from a story about a boy who stops a dam from cracking by plugging a hole with his finger.

People reference this story to talk about plugging a leak, or stopping a problem before it grows unstoppable.

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