Not by a Long Chalk

As I have mentioned here before, my hobby is writing and maintaining a blog about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. I know, I know. Listen, it keeps me off the street.

Anyway, not long ago, Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, opened a piece this way:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The opening of the second paragraph was for my benefit. I know that because Alex (a college classmate of mine) proceeded to go on Facebook and post: “‘Not by a long chalk’; is that one of those “[not] one-off Britishisms” that Ben Yagoda is always on about?”

In a word, no.

Alex is not alone in wrongly thinking that “not by a long chalk”—which the Oxford English Dictionary reports is an ”allusion to the use of chalk in scoring ‘points’, etc.”—is the British equivalent of the more familiar and nearly rhyming “not by a long shot.” A 1995 New York Times review of a book of Italo Calvino’s short stories noted that the translator “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages, some colloquial (‘Mummy,’ ‘not by a long chalk’), others antiquated (‘wont,’ ‘woe betide us’).” (Interesting bit of provincialism that American usage would be considered “standard,” no?)

But the phrase—hereafter NBALC—actually sprang from American soil. (In that way it resembles another word commonly but mistakenly thought of as British, bumbershoot.) In the America’s Historical Newspapers database, the first hit is a brief item from an 1833 Maine newspaper—and by the way, just assume sic for the funky bits in all these 19th-century quotations:

Might your name be Smith, said a lout to that oddest of odd fellows, I, after a rap at his door loud enough to disturb the occupants of the church-yard. Yes it might, but it aint by a long chalk.

In 1837, a Pensacola, Fla., newspaper printed this item under the heading Americanism: “The last time I was in Rhode Island (all the galls sing there, and it’s generally allowed that there’s no such singers any where—they beat the EYE-talians a long chalk … )” That the witticism was credited to “Sam Slick,” a homespun character created by the Nova Scotia author Thomas Chandler Haliburton, suggests that NBALC may have originated in Canada.

In any case, John Russell Bartlett included the phrase in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. By that time, it had been picked up by British writers, including Thomas De Quincey, who in 1842 wrote, “As regards the body of water … the Indus ranks foremost by a long chalk.”

All this is not to say “not by a long shot” isn’t an Americanism. It is. The first citation in the Historical Newspapers database is in 1835, and it pops up frequently after that, for example, in The Baltimore Sun in 1837: “Gov. Poindexter did fall from the second story  of a hotel and was injured—but not killed by a long shot.” Bartlett included it, too, in his Dictionary of Americanisms.

So what happened? A Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing the two phrases’ fortunes is illuminating. (The “us” in the code indicates U.S. use; “gb” British use.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 11.47.11 AM

The chart indicates that between 1910 and 1950, NBALC took off in popularity in Britain, meanwhile falling off in the United States, to the point where people like the Times reviewer and Alex Beam could mistake its origin.

Why did the phrase get so popular in the U.K.? Even more intriguingly, how is it that two nearly rhyming phrases meaning the same thing emerged in North America at almost exactly the same time?

Those are mysteries whose answers we may never know. But one point is clear. The expression is not a Britishism. NBALC.


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