The phrase hang out to dry means to leave someone or something behind; abandon.
The Origin Of ‘Hung Out To Dry’
The origin of this phrase likely comes from the practice of people hanging their wet clothes outside to dry. Why would a person dry their clothes in this way? For one, it is cheaper than using an electric dryer. While it is true that an electric washer and dryer are convenient to have, they are also expensive. Plus, using them frequently increases the cost of a person’s monthly electrical bill. On the other hand, hanging wet clothes outside and letting the sun and wind do all the work is easier on one’s wallet. It’s effective too! Well, in the warmer seasons, anyway.
So this is likely where the saying comes from—people hanging their wet clothes out to dry. This might also explain how the expression got its “to be abandoned or left behind” meaning, because after hanging up their clothes, people then leave the clothes for hours, giving them time to dry.
As for the earliest I could find the phrase in print as in idiom, with its “abandonment” meaning, that would be the year 1980. For example, in the newspaper Filmnews, 1980, it reads:
“They would be rather explicit, because they were quite angry because it was like being abandoned like being hung out to dry.”
- After his car broke down on the side of the road, Wilson called his brother for assistance. However, he was left hung out to dry because his brother was too busy to answer his phone.