Understanding the Idiom: "go down the tubes" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

When we hear someone say that something has “gone down the tubes,” what do they mean? This idiom is often used to describe a situation or circumstance that has deteriorated or failed. It can refer to anything from a business venture to a personal relationship, and it implies that things have taken a turn for the worse.

The phrase “go down the tubes” is an informal expression that originated in America in the mid-20th century. It’s not entirely clear where it came from, but some speculate that it may have been inspired by images of water flowing down pipes or drains. Regardless of its origins, this idiom has become a common part of English language and is widely understood by native speakers.

To get started, let’s take a closer look at what it means when something “goes down the tubes.”

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “go down the tubes”

The phrase “go down the tubes” is a common idiom used to describe a situation where something has failed or gone wrong. The origins of this phrase are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in America during the mid-20th century.

During this time, many cities in America were undergoing significant changes due to urbanization and industrialization. As a result, there was an increase in infrastructure development such as water systems, sewage systems, and transportation networks. These developments required large pipes or tubes to be installed underground.

It is thought that the phrase “go down the tubes” may have originated from workers who were responsible for maintaining these pipes. If something went wrong with one of these pipes, it would often require significant repairs or even replacement. This could lead to delays and disruptions which would be frustrating for both workers and residents alike.

Over time, this phrase became more widely used outside of its original context and came to refer to any situation where something has failed or gone wrong. Today, it remains a popular idiom in English-speaking countries around the world.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “go down the tubes”

The idiom “go down the tubes” is a commonly used expression in English language that refers to a situation where something goes wrong or fails completely. This phrase is often used to describe a negative outcome, such as when a plan, project, or relationship doesn’t work out as expected.

There are many variations of this idiom that people use in different contexts. Some common variations include “go down the drain,” “go south,” and “hit rock bottom.” These phrases all convey a similar meaning – that something has failed or gone wrong.

One interesting variation of this idiom is “flushed down the toilet.” While it has a more graphic connotation than other variations, it still means essentially the same thing – that something has been lost or destroyed irretrievably.

This idiom can be used in both formal and informal situations. It’s often used in business settings to describe financial losses or failed projects, but it’s also commonly used in everyday conversation to talk about personal relationships or plans gone awry.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “go down the tubes”


– Go downhill

– Take a turn for the worse

– Deteriorate

– Decline rapidly

– Fall apart

These phrases all convey a similar idea to “go down the tubes.” They suggest a negative change or decline in something that was previously good or successful.


– Improve

– Flourish

– Thrive

– Succeed

These words represent the opposite of “go down the tubes.” They describe positive growth or success instead of failure or decline.

Cultural Insights:

The origin of this idiom is unclear, but some theories suggest it may have come from plumbing terminology. In older homes with outdated pipes, flushing too much toilet paper could cause blockages that would send everything “down the tubes” and out into a septic tank. The phrase may have evolved from there to describe any situation where things are going wrong and heading towards failure.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “go down the tubes”

In order to fully grasp and use the idiom “go down the tubes” correctly, it is important to practice using it in various contexts. The following exercises will help you become more comfortable with this phrase and understand its meaning better.

Exercise 1: Fill in the Blank

Complete each sentence by filling in the blank with an appropriate form of “go down the tubes”.

  1. The company’s profits have ____________ since they lost their biggest client.
  2. If we don’t start taking care of our environment, our planet will ____________.
  3. I’m afraid your chances of getting that job offer just ____________ after they found out about your criminal record.

Exercise 2: Role Play

Pretend you are a character in one of these scenarios and use “go down the tubes” appropriately:

  • You are a business owner who just lost all their inventory due to a fire.
  • You are a student who failed all their exams this semester because you didn’t study enough.
  • You are a politician whose campaign is losing support because of recent scandals.

Note: Remember that “go down the tubes” means something has failed or gone wrong. Use it appropriately in context.

By practicing these exercises, you will gain confidence in using this idiom correctly and effectively communicate when things go wrong or fail. Keep practicing and expanding your knowledge of idioms!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “go down the tubes”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meaning and usage in context. The idiom “go down the tubes” is commonly used to describe a situation or thing that has failed or gone bad. However, there are some common mistakes that people make when using this idiom.

One mistake is using the idiom in inappropriate situations. For example, saying “my coffee went down the tubes” does not make sense as it implies that coffee can fail or go bad. It is important to use idioms only in appropriate contexts.

Another mistake is misusing the tense of the verb. The correct form of this idiom is “goes down the tubes”, not “went down the tubes”. This mistake can change the meaning of what you are trying to say and confuse your audience.

A third mistake is using incorrect prepositions with this idiom. The correct preposition to use with “go down the tubes” is “to”, as in “the project went down the tubes”. Using other prepositions such as “in” or “with” can alter its meaning and cause confusion.

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