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The meaning and origin of the expression: Down to the wire

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Down to the wire

Meaning

Referring to the decisive moment at the very end of a close contest.

Origin

'Down to the wire' is a commonly used expression these days, but whenever I hear it I think 'what wire?', so I thought I'd look into it.

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Which wire is that?
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The earliest examples that I can find of 'down to the wire' in print are from educative pieces about viniculture, in which gardeners are advised to tie their vines 'down to the wire'. I've also heard it used to describe car tyres that were on their last legs and had the underlying canvas and wire thread showing. Those aren't of course the source of the phrase, which it turns out has more to do with horses than horsepower.

Down to the wirePeople have bet on horse races for centuries and the outcome of these has always been of close interest to punters. Before the days of electronic measurement and photo finishes the method adopted in the 19th century to decide the winner of a close race was to string a wire across the track above the finishing line.

It's not clear where the expression 'down to the wire' was coined. The USA is most frequently cited, as demonstrated in this piece from the American journal Scribner’s Magazine, July 1889:

As the end of the stand was reached Timarch worked up to Petrel, and the two raced down to the ‘wire,’ cheered on by the applause of the spectators. They ended the first half mile of the race head and head, passing lapped together under the wire, and beginning in earnest the mile which was yet to be traversed.

There is a competing claim from Australia. Here's a strange piece from the South Australian newspaper The Southern Argus, June 1884:

The first event on the programme was a chorus for all ages, with some twenty entries, all of whom came to the post. They got rather a bad start, Soprano running away with the lead, Contralto second, Tenor third, Basso fourth, at least twenty lengths behind. At the quarter there was no particular change, but going down the back stretch all closed up, and there was a terrific race round the, turn and down to the wire, Soprano, staying the longest, and winning by a neck, amidst uproarious applause.

The strangeness of the above is explained by the fact that it was written as a spoof by the newspaper's horse racing correspondent who was given the task, clearly unwelcome to him, of reviewing a singing contest. As a form of protest, he decided to enliven his copy by writing it up in the form of a racing commentary.

It's clear that the expression 'down to the wire' was known to racing devotees in the 1880s in both Australia and the USA. At present, Australia has a close lead but further citations may well yet come to light. I'm obliged to say that, as far as deciding the origin goes, it will go down to the wire.