High and dry is an English idiom meaning that one was left stranded, abandoned, and without recourse. It is usually used metaphorically; no one is actually 'left' anywhere. Ex. "The mortgage crises left them high and dry, with no way of meeting their debt."

This phrase comes from the world of Victorian maritime slang; a ship might be left high (up on the shore) and dry (completely out of the water). This is nearly as bad as being a fish out of water, but strangely, it was not always a bad thing. The OED gives the first written usage of this phrase as occurring in 1822, when Robert Grenville Wallace used it in his book Fifteen Years in India. In this story, being high and dry was actually a good thing for the hero, who was trying to land a small boat in heavy surf; arriving "high and dry on the beach" was a relief.

In the OED's second finding of 'high and dry' (1838), it was still being used in a positive sense, when Charles Dickens used it in an account of his failing attempts to keep up with the demands of writing Oliver Twist while at the same time editing the monthly magazine Miscellany: "I no sooner get myself up, high and dry, to attack him manfully, than up come the waves of each month's work, and drive me back again into a sea of manuscript."

The OED's third reference refers to ships in dry dock, which while not always a good thing, is still much better than leaving a ship to wallow and sink in the water.

It appears, though, that the OED may have missed the first written reference to 'high and dry'. The Sheffield University Phrase Finder turns up a reference from 1796, in the Ships News column of the August edition of The London Times: "The Russian frigate Archipelago, yesterday got aground below the Nore at high water, which, when the tide had ebbed, left her nearly high and dry."

So it appears that for decades 'high and dry' was not a pejorative phrase; it could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on context. As it has come to be used in a more and more abstract sense, it has become more and more negative, until today being left high and dry is clearly a Bad Thing.

Life of Charles Dickens By John Forster
Fifteen Years in India; Or, Sketches of a Soldier's Life by Robert Grenville Wallace

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