Idioms About Distance

By Mark Nichol

The English language, rich with idiom, is replete with colorful words and phrases about measurement of distance. Here is a look at some of those expressions, roughly in order of the magnitude of the length being referred to.

Colloquial phrases about distances include hairbreadth, referring, as the word indicates, to the thickness of a hair with the connotation of coming within an infinitesimal distance of doing something. The closing of this compound word, first known to have been used in the early 1600s, is unusual, as is the insertion of the plural s in the middle of the plural form: hairsbreadth. Similarly, one can refer to doing something “by a whisker.” One can also say that that a room or other place is so small, one could not swing a cat in the confined space.

Two idioms that do not refer to literal distance but include figurative references to distance follow: To express that someone is not trustworthy, one can write or say, “I don’t trust [someone] any farther than I can throw him” (or her). To indicate that one does not want to get close to an object or a subject, one can refer to not wanting to touch something or someone with a ten-foot pole—or, rarely, a barge pole (referring to a long pole used to propel a barge, a long, flat boat used for hauling freight or debris, by pushing the pole’s end against the shallow bottom of the waterway).

A small but more extensive distance might be described as a hop, skip, and a jump or spitting distance (not to be confused with the much more intimate striking distance, denoting sufficient proximity to hit someone or something), though these expressions refer to more than the literal distance, likely even more than “a stone’s throw”—literally, the distance one can throw a rock of indeterminate size. Meanwhile, something right in one’s backyard is no great distance.

Many people are familiar with the expression “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” attributed to various American officers during the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. This admonition to withhold musket fire until the targeted enemy is close enough for a sure shot that justifies the use of precious ammunition had been used repeatedly in various forms for several decades before that conflict, however, and originated with a Swedish king in the early 1600s. It never achieved popular usage, though, even as a figurative expression.

An expression from the American South refers to how many looks away a destination is; this term denotes how many landmarks one must look for before arriving. (“Turn right at the church, then, when you come to a big stump right next to the road, take the next left turn, and it’s right past the creek crossing” represents three or four looks, depending on whether the left turn after the stump counts as a look.)

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3 Responses to “Idioms About Distance”

  • Jon Miner

    Re distance…
    There is also the idea of distance/time:
    “Christmas is just around the corner.”

  • Jon Miner

    and
    hop , skip , and jump — noun Date: 1760 a short distance

  • Melissa Semento

    This was an interest piece that revealed historical background to the familiar phrases used in modern communication. Although it is the English language that is discussed, it is interesting to know that some common phrases began in other parts of the world in other languages. I am pondering whether Southern idioms for giving direction may also be referred to as a colloquialism.

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