A tense situation in a competition where the outcome is only clear at or near the end.
Example: There’s a basketball game on TV that’s nearly over. The score is tied, and both teams are on fire! Hence, it could be said that this game is going to come down to the wire, because it’s difficult to tell who will win.
Origin Of ‘Down To The Wire’
This expression is believed to have originated from horse racing. Here is why:
In horse racing, a wire was hung up over the finish line to help determine a winner. This was especially handy in cases where the races were very close. So then, as the riders rapidly approached the finish line, they could be described as coming down to the wire, quite literally.
According to World Wide Words, the phrase is used in Scribner’s Magazine in July, 1889. There’s a story within the magazine titled ‘How the Derby Was Won’, and it provides some details about a horse race that recently took place, saying:
“As the end of the stand was reached Timarch worked up to Petrel, and the two raced down to the wire, cheered on by the applause of the spectators. They ended the first half mile of the race head and head, passing lapped together under the wire, and beginning in earnest the mile which was yet to be traversed.”
So while the phrase looks to have started with horse races, it later went on to become the idiom it is today.
- The game clock running down and both teams are all tied up. This is an exciting game that’s going to come down to the wire!
- It came to the wire in a grueling battle of strength between two heavy weight-lifting champions.
Note: Know Your Phrase has the definitions for many common idioms. However, when it comes to their origin, this isn’t always clear. So in cases like that, I’ll try to include the oldest known quote of the idiom. That way, you can at least get some kind of idea on how old it is.