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I was wondering why a "tall order" means a formidable task or requirement?

Is it a metaphor? If so, how shall I understand it?

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3 Answers

An order is "a direction or commission to make, provide, or furnish something" (Dictionary.com). Tall means "large in amount or degree".

So a tall order is a direction to do something considerable. It's not a metaphor; it just includes a rarer usage of tall.

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The OED says tall also means a large amount, and is originally US slang. Their first quotation is from Charles Dickens' American Notes for General Circulation (1842):

We were a pretty tall time coming that last fifteen mile.

A tall order is "something expected to be hard to achieve or fulfil" F. W. L. Adams wrote in The New Egypt (1893):

It's a tall order, but it's worth trying, isn't it?

This kind of demanding request had also been intensified with other adjectives such as big, large and strong, for example in Anthony Trollope's The way we live now (1875):

By Jove, it's a rather strong order when a girl has just run away with another man. Everybody knows it.

This use of tall is also seen in tall tale, covered by World Wide Words who begin:

Tall is one of those curious words, like nice, that has had more meanings down the centuries than you can shake a stick at. Back in Anglo-Saxon times it meant swift or prompt, and later on it variously had senses of fine, handsome, bold, strong, brave, skilful and a good fighter. It was only in the sixteenth century that it started to mean somebody or something physically higher than normal.

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The allusion is to any form of work order with constituent elements arranged as line items -- a meal order at a restaurant, for example -- and a large number of such items on it. The required vertical space makes the order "tall", and the quantity of items makes it a lot of work.

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Do you have a source? –  Daniel Jun 20 '12 at 20:01
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Well, it makes sense; I just wondered if you made it up. –  Daniel Jun 20 '12 at 20:25
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@Danielδ: I honestly have no idea; it's just what I seem to have stored at that location in my brain. I may have read or heard something to that effect, but if so I couldn't tell you where. –  chaos Jun 20 '12 at 20:32
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@Chaos "Sounds plausible to me" just doesn't cut it as a conclusive argument. "Sounded plausible to some unknown person who postetd it on Wikipedia" -- now that's conclusive. :-) –  Jay Jun 20 '12 at 21:12
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@Jay: Hey, we can do better than that, these days -- we can cite a Wikipedia article that cites a newspaper that got its information, uncredited, from a citationless Wikipedia article! –  chaos Jun 20 '12 at 21:14
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