If you’re “in dire straits,” you’re in desperate trouble or impending danger.
“Dire” first appears in English, as a mutation from Latin dirus, in the mid-1500s, and it became popular as a useful adjective to mean extremely serious. “Straits” are narrow passages of water which connect two larger bodies of water. Navigating straits can be perilous. In the mid-1500s again, straits came to mean any difficult situation, one that carries a high degree of trouble.
The idiom “in dire straits” originated from sailors having to negotiate dangerous waters, like a narrow or tight and difficult-to-maneuver channel of water such as the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bering Strait.
Apparently, the only use of “straits” in Shakespeare is from As You Like It: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” However, “straits” and “in straits” and “in a strait” (and even “great straits” and “desperate straits”) were long used figuratively, though they didn’t show up with “dire” until much more recently.
The phrase is used literally rather than figuratively in the 1700s, from the epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780: “When now the heroes through the vast profound,
Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.”
Google lists the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. It appears in an article about Paganini from 1892; and in the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890; there is one from the story, A Masai Adventure by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888.
The phrase was recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was … absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.”
In the early 1980s, the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene. They were formed in 1977 and had their first hit — “Sultans of Swing” — in 1978, but they didn’t become really big until 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations.
As a travel destination, “dire straits” somehow lacks appeal.