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“Them’s the breaks”: The Definitive Guide

“Them’s the breaks”: The Definitive Guide

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

This is an old proverb that dates back to 1854, when it was used by Seba Smith in “Way Down East or Portraitures of Yankee Life.” The proverb means that there are several ways to achieve the same thing or attain the same goal.

And, that sentiment generally holds true in life.

If you want that promotion at your job, there are a few ways you can get it. You can work hard and make sure that your superiors notice your efforts.

You can network like crazy, get to make friends with everyone in the company, and hope to God that nepotism will flash you her crooked smile. Or, you can decide to steal someone else’s work and take credit for it.

The bottom line is that each one of us will take the path most suited to our character.

Similarly, when it comes to romance, there is more than one way to find happiness. You can go out every night, hoping to find the one at a bar or a club.

You can opt for an arranged marriage and plan to work through whatever life throws your way. Or, you can use an app like Tinder and swipe your fingers off till Cupid does his thing.

Even when it comes to proverbs, there is usually more than one way to say the same thing. Earlier, we talked about the proverb “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” and we discussed how this proverb had a fatalistic outlook on life.

Now, another proverb that says almost the same thing is “them’s the breaks.”


What does “them’s the breaks” mean?

“Them’s the breaks” is said when something unfair or unpleasant happens and you have to accept it. It’s sort of another way of saying “it is what it is.”There are a few different ways of saying this proverb, including, “dem’s the breaks,” “them’s da breaks,” and “that’s the breaks.” Obviously, as you may have already noticed, this proverb is completely slang, making it inappropriate for the workplace.


Where does “them’s the breaks” come from?

Originally, this proverb is inspired by the game of billiards or pool.

In pool, before the game begins, the balls are arranged in a certain formation, which is known as racking the balls up.

Then, as the game starts, one player takes the first shot at the arranged ball, which is also known as breaking.

The whole point of breaking is to spread the balls around the table and to bring them as close as possible to the table pockets.

Once the first player breaks and sends the balls flying in each direction, the balls will eventually settle down in different positions on the table, and this result can not be changed.

In other words, regardless of whether a break is decent or not, each player has to make the best of where their balls are placed on the table and to accept the situation as is.

You sort of see where the proverb gets its meaning from, don’t you?


A shared sense of determinism

Interestingly, a lot of cultures share the sentiment that some things in life are destined to be and that there’s little we can do about them.

Don’t worry. It’s not the English who are overly pessimistic.

For instance, in French, there’s a saying, “c’est la vie,” which translates to “that’s life.” The implication of this saying is that life is full of surprises, both ups and downs, so we should accept our fate. It’s sort of a very stoic philosophy.

Hence, should a French man suffer an unpleasant experience, they tend to do just shrug their shoulders, mutter, “c’est la vie,” and move on with their lives.

You will also find the same expression in other languages, including Italian, Arabic, and so much more.


Can it ever be “them’s the brakes” instead of “them’s the breaks”?

The answer is no.

Since the expression comes from the world of billiards and pool, you really can’t use “brakes.”

After all, “brakes” are what you use to stop your car while driving down the highway.

And, while a billiard player has no choice but to accept a bad “break,” no sane driver in their right mind would ever accept bad “brakes.”

The former has to do with the rules of a game and their possible metaphoric meanings that pertain to life, but the latter is simply a life and death situation that can never be accepted and can always be remedied with a simple visit to the mechanic.


How to use “them’s the breaks”?

As mentioned, “them’s the breaks” is informal. So, you really don’t want to be saying it to your boss any time soon.

However, if you’re with friends or you’re writing an informal piece, here’s how you can use it.

First of all, you want to use it after something bad or unfortunate happens. It really wouldn’t make much sense to use it after a good thing.

Secondly, you need to say it when there’s nothing to be done and things have to be accepted as they are. In other words, if there’s still something to be done, then using this proverb would be too premature.

Now, let us have a look at how to use this expression. 

Let’s say that you applied for an entrance exam to go to a specific college, and you can only take this exam once. Also, this exam is either pass or fail with no gray in between.

Now, after taking the exam, you are reviewing the results with your friends.

Friend: C’mon man. Tell us. We’re dying to know. How did you do? You: Looks like I didn’t pass. Well, I guess them’s the breaks then. I’ll have to start applying to my safety schools.

In the same example above, if you could retake the exam rather than it being a one-time thing, then the conversation could play out as follows:

Friend: C’mon man. Tell us. We’re dying to know. How did you do?

You: Looks like I didn’t pass. Well, I guess them’s the breaks then. I’ll have to start applying to my safety schools.

Friend: Nah, it’s not over yet. You could retake the exam in a month.

What follows is another example pulled from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Well, them’s the breaks, as it were, for Vince Gilligan, whose co-creation for CBS, “Battle Creek,” wasn’t picked up for a second season.


What about “that’s the breaks,” “them’s da breaks,” and “dem’s the breaks”?

All those variations are used in the same exact way as the original. The only difference is that they represent varying degrees of informality.

For instance, “dem’s the breaks” is so informal that many publishers who welcome informal submissions would still have a problem with it.

So, if you do want to use this proverb, you should either stick to “them’s the breaks” or “that’s the breaks.” But, the latter one is less popular, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


”Get the breaks”

Before leaving you, it is interesting to note that “get the breaks” is an actual different expression with a different meaning than “them’s the breaks.”

“Get the breaks” means to get lucky. After all, a billiards player who gets a favorable break is probably going to win the game.
Now, this expression isn’t popular, so your friends might give you some funny looks if you try to use it with them.

That said, here is an excerpt from an edition of Harper’s Weekly that was published back in 1914.

Every club has a certain team that makes it as much trouble as the Athletics hand Washington.

In contests between such teams, one club always seems able to get the breaks.

When a hit is needed, a wallop is always forthcoming. When an error will prove disastrous, some one makes the error.