What does long mean before a name? Like Long John Silver in Treasure Island or Long Susan in Ripper Street.

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    M-W carries the sense 'tall'. Jul 17, 2023 at 10:25
  • Seeing the title I thought this might be about place names. In England, besides self-explanatory names like Longridge, there are a few dozen villages with Long as a separate word; among them, Long Bredy is near Little Bredy. (Little is more often paired with Great.) Jul 18, 2023 at 17:10

6 Answers 6


Somehow the suggestion that we don't really know the reason behind "Long" as John Silver's nickname, is not terribly convincing.

Nowadays, yes, anything goes. If a relatively short man is nicknamed "Long", I would either interpret it being as a ironic comment on his evident lack of height, or I'd imagine that something else about him must be long. And if it wasn't his name, hair or nose, it would have to be something else, which for the moment escapes me...

No, historically the epithet Long was given to people who were considered exceptionally tall for those times. There were also several variations on the theme of Long, such as Longfellow meaning tall, good companion; Longstaff, "well endowed" and Longshanks meaning "long legs" or "long shins". Back in the late 1800s the average height of a man in England was about 1.66 m, today that figure has risen to 1.78 m

Infographic showing a dramatic increase in average height of British males at age 21 from 1871–5 to 1971–5

I don't have any data for the 1700s but it's easy to imagine that men and women were even shorter, and therefore anyone above 1.70m in those days must have really stood out from the crowd.

Examples of famous men whose nicknames were or contained the term "Long"

  • Dexter Gordon: Long Tall Dexter, (February 27, 1923 – April 25, 1990) 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m)

  • Thomas Jefferson: Long Tom, (April 13 [O.S. April 2] 1743 – July 4, 1826) 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m)

  • Edward I: Edward Longshanks (17 June 1239 – 7 July 1307) 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m)

  • Long John Silver (mid-1800s) A fictional character, his actual height is not mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, Treasure Island. However, the author intentionally made him tall...

Silver claims to have served in the Royal Navy and lost his leg under "the immortal Hawke". "His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham – plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling."

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    And Long Sally is tall. That still only makes it a likely meaning in any given case, not the only possible meaning every time it is used.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 31, 2014 at 17:29
  • @JonHanna I said as much in my second paragraph: "Nowadays, yes, anything goes."
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 31, 2014 at 17:32
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    @JonHanna you have a point, but I still maintain traditionally, "Long" referred to height. I'm not sure that "Long" as a 12th-17th century nickname for an obviously short person would have stuck. Usually nicknames reflect a particular feature which a person possesses not lacks.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 31, 2014 at 20:03
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    @JonHanna yes, so you're saying that Long usually means "tall", whereas I'm saying in the past that was probably its intended meaning. I also found some evidence to back my answer. Mine is not only opinion based, I think it's more complete, and fairer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 31, 2014 at 20:15
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    It's possible his name is just "Silver" and he likes wearing long johns.
    – Jim
    Nov 17, 2014 at 15:59

It's not before the name, it's being used as part of the name.

As such, there's no set rule as to what it could mean, as there might be for an honorific. It's likely to mean that they are tall, but there's nothing stopping someone nicknaming somebody "long" for some other reason, and that nickname sticking enough to become how they are normally referred to. Hence it could mean that they were short (ironically), that they always take a long time when they go to the toilet, refer to some now-forgotten amusing incident, or anything else.


Sometimes, long is prefixed to a name as a kind of nickname, usually indicating that the person so named is tall. This is the case with Long John Silver.


Actually, it's a bit darker than that. "Long pork" was a euphemism for human flesh, usually used in reference to necessary cannibalism in the case of being marooned or shipwrecked. Anyone who was known to have...partaken in such a repast was called "Long ".

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage. Can you please edit your question to include references for your claim?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 24, 2016 at 8:06
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    People are so mean! You can be a good Samaritan all your life, and be a big time adventurer, sailing the seven seas. But get shipwrecked and eat a person one time and they never let you live it down.
    – fixer1234
    Mar 4, 2017 at 4:05
  • @fixer1234 Quite so! Even eating an ailing cabin boy won't afford you a defense of "necessity" in law when you are next shipwrecked and find yourself without manna raining down on the High Seas. Mar 5, 2017 at 0:52

"It is not about being tall" is correct..It is about cannibalism and "Long pork" Thus the quote "I knew you before you went long" makes more sense In terms of Ripper Street it may have been euphemistically used as Long Susan metaphorically cannibalized the women of the streets for her own wealth or maybe because she performed fellacio.

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    Welcome to English Language and Usage. While your comments are appreciated, they are still only comments unless you can provide sources and citations. Mar 5, 2017 at 2:13

I think it is irony. In a "Black Sails" episode one character said to him, "I knew you before you went long"... There could be no other reason for the comment except to point out that he knew him before he became a one legged man. In this series Long John Silver has always been a less than average height pirate.

  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. We are looking for answers that include references and citations. If you need assistance in framing an answer, please visit our Help Page on "How to write an answer" Mar 3, 2017 at 21:08
  • That may be true in Black Sails, but may well have been a creation of that show's writers, and it doesn't explain Treasure Island, which was written long before.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:01

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