3

The common saying "give an inch and they'll take a mile" means:

  • Make a small concession and they'll take advantage of you. For example, I told her she could borrow the car for one day and she's been gone a week—give an inch!

It is a very old saying which originally had a differen phrasing:

  • This expression, in slightly different form, was already a proverb in John Heywood's 1546 collection, “Give him an inch and he'll take an ell,” and is so well known it is often shortened (as in the example). The use of mile dates from about 1900. (Dictionary.com)

The same expression is common also in other languages where "the arm", unlike in English, is still part of the saying:

Donnez-leur en long comme le doigt, ils en prendront long comme le bras (French)

Dale un dedo y se toma hasta el codo (Spanish)

Dai una mano e si prendono un braccio (Italian)

Questions:

  • What is the origin of the saying? Was it an original English one or was is "imported" from a foreign language?

  • Why was "ell" changed to "mile" (a very different measure) around the beginning of the 20th century?

Edit:

1) - the assumption that ell has fallen completely out of use does not appear to be supported by available reference: ( Ngran "take a mile vs take an ell". )

2) - idiomatic expressions don't typically rely on their literal meaning, so the need to change from ell to another common measure doesn't appear to be the only possible reason for the change.

  • 2
    The second question is easy. What's an ell? Why use a measure no-one's heard of (let alone knows how long it is)? – Andrew Leach May 14 '16 at 14:53
  • 5
    The foreign sayings are "give him a finger, and he'll take an arm" (French), "give him a finger and he'll take a forearm" (Spanish), and "give him a hand and he'll take an arm" (Italian). Nothing about inches. – Peter Shor May 14 '16 at 14:56
  • 2
    @AndrewLeach - it could be, but why not a "yard" which would have been more comparable to an arm in length. – user66974 May 14 '16 at 14:57
  • 3
    @Josh61: I think your first question (what is the origin?) is an excellent question. I don't see why you expect the inch-finger and ell-forearm correspondence to have been preserved after the saying changed. – Peter Shor May 14 '16 at 15:12
  • 5
    An inch is in many languages a thumb, which could explain the finger / inch variations. An ell was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the fingers (hence elbow?), or the length of the (fore)arm. Sayings that exist in many different languages tend to have a common origin, often biblical. I cannot find a biblical origin for this one though... – oerkelens May 14 '16 at 15:13
6

As Peter Shor commented, the foreign expressions are all related explicitly to parts of the body:

"give him a finger, and he'll take an arm" (French),
"give him a finger and he'll take a forearm" (Spanish), and
"give him a hand and he'll take an arm" (Italian).

While "inch" may be about a thumb's-width*, it's a unit of length, so "ell" needs to be replaced with a unit of length, and "mile" has a suitable element of hyperbole. The continental expressions are parts of the body, so the hyperbole is body-related too, rather than explicitly distance-related. That is, the comparison must be within a single class.

"Yard" would certainly have a been a contender to replace an obsolete comparison, but since there is a more hyperbolic word in the same class, mile, why not use that?


*Edward II defined the inch in terms of three barley-corns laid end-to-end, so even the thumb isn't really relevant here.

5

I don't know where the phrase came from, but the reason for the change from "ell" to "mile" is obvious: the word ell had fallen completely out of use.

In fact, the last time I saw it used was in the early 1970's, describing this exact expression in an story from the 17th century: the Earl of Donegal was attempting to get control of an "inch", a Gaelic word for a freshwater island, and a political opponent wisecracked, "Give him an inch and he'll take an ell." After the Earl won the struggle and gained title to the inch, he rubbed it in by changing the spelling of his title to "Earl of Donegall" -- taking an l.

The story is probably apocryphal, but the county and the peerage are spelled differently for some reason.

  • Brad Howard comments that the ell version occurs "in Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’ in chapter 20, where the Professor, Henry & Hans are trying to get to the subterranean river through a wall of granite. The worry is that as they are pick-axing away at the wall to get to the much-needed water, that the river, “having gained an inch would take an ell,” and come rushing catastrophically through the new opening. This quote dates from mid- to late-1800’s." – Chappo Says Reinstate Monica Sep 17 '18 at 12:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy