second string: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘second string’ mean?

The idiom "second string" refers to a person who is not as important or skilled as someone else in a particular situation or role.

Idiom Explorer


The idiom "second string" has its origins in the realm of sports. It refers to players who are not part of the starting lineup, but rather serve as substitutes or backups. The term "string" in this context is believed to have originated from the concept of a stringed instrument, where the primary or first string is considered to be the most important. The second string, therefore, is a secondary option.

The earliest recorded usage of the expression "second string" can be traced back to the early 19th century. Initially, it was used to describe musicians who played backup in an orchestra. Over time, its usage expanded to include a broader range of activities, particularly in competitive team sports.

In its figurative sense, "second string" refers to individuals or groups who are considered to be of lower importance or quality compared to their counterparts. This idiom describes someone who is less skilled or experienced, or who holds a subordinate role within a particular hierarchy. It highlights the idea of being in a secondary position or having a lower status.

Although the precise origin of the idiom is difficult to pinpoint, its usage extends beyond the realm of sports. The term "second string" can be found in literature, politics, and everyday conversations, where it continues to evoke the concept of being a backup or an alternative option.

The substitute became the team's backup alternate in sports.

Furthermore, "second string" is often used in conjunction with the concept of being in the limelight or in the spotlight. It contrasts the main or primary individuals with those who are in a secondary position. This contrast can be seen in phrases such as "second string players" or "second string politicians," emphasizing the distinction between those who are in the forefront and those who are in a supporting role.

While the idiom "second string" predominantly carries a negative connotation of being inferior or less significant, it also offers a sense of potential opportunity. Being part of the second string implies the possibility of advancing to the first string, of gaining prominence and recognition. This notion of aspiring to move up the ranks adds a layer of complexity to the idiom, as it highlights the dual nature of being in a secondary position.

"second fiddle" is a related idiom that can be used to describe someone who is playing a subordinate or inferior role to someone else. It shares similarities with the concept of second string, as both idioms highlight the idea of being in a lesser position. However, "second fiddle" specifically refers to playing a musical instrument and being in a supporting role to the first violin or the main performer.

"play second fiddle" is a phrase that is often used to convey the idea of being in a secondary or subordinate role. It emphasizes the act of playing a supporting part rather than taking on a leading role. This phrase can be used interchangeably with the idiom "second fiddle" to describe someone who is not in the limelight and is instead playing a supporting role.

"second-rate" is another related idiom that shares similarities with "second string." It is used to describe something or someone of lower quality or inferior standards. This phrase can be applied to various contexts, such as products, services, or even people. "Second-rate" denotes something or someone that is not up to par with the best or is considered of lesser value.

The idiom "second string" originated in the realm of sports and has since expanded its usage to describe individuals or groups who are considered to be of lesser importance. It is closely associated with the concept of being a backup or alternative option and is often used to contrast those in a secondary position with those in the limelight. Despite its negative connotation, the idiom also carries the possibility of upward mobility and advancement. The complexities inherent in the idiom "second string" provide ample room for exploration and contemplation.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom "second string" can be used in a sentence:

  1. He was disappointed when he found out he was only selected for the second string in the soccer team.
  2. The CEO's focus is on developing the first-string employees and often overlooks the potential of the second string.
  3. Due to injuries, the team had to rely on its second string players for the majority of the game.

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