Where does this phrase come from? It's something I use (usually ironically) and something that's "just there" in my lexicon like "fit as a fiddle". However when I Google it, no origin pops up. It is used as early as 1855:

It is in his admiration for the gentle confines between virtue and her antagonist

This occurrence is 164 years old. A commenter below has used Google Ngrams to source "the confines_noun" to around 1650, so 369 years old (earlier if you make the search case insensitive).

It is obvious what it means. It has become a kind of frequently used phrase, idiomatic expression, trope or formulaic language.

In ironic use it refers to a place which is not gentle at all. So a phrase which lends itself to ironic use, like "your humble servant". It would be great if it turned out to be a phrase first used by Shakespeare or the like.

  • The one example you've cited strikes me as "unusual", compared to other written instances of the sequence the gentle confines - which are nearly always followed by of [something that gently confines / restrains someone or something]. In fact, I'm not quite sure how to interpret the usage when followed by between virtue and her antagonist. Maybe it's become something of a "fixed expression" now, but it's really just ordinary English. – FumbleFingers Oct 5 at 16:16
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    The expression that has really taken off in the past 60 years or so is "friendly confines," an expression that has become something close to a cliché among U.S. baseball fans. It refers to a home ballpark—particularly one that is relatively small and "hitter friendly." – Sven Yargs Oct 6 at 3:25
  • @FumbleFingers my answer may seem unusual because it is 164 years old. My point in quoting it was simply that it was 164 years old: I am trying to date the first occurrence of the expression. It is obvious what it means. However it has become a kind of frequently used phrase (I'm also searching for a word for "frequently used phrase". A trope?). In ironic use it refers to a place which is not gentle at all. So I'm interested in first occurrence, for example if it is a phrase in Shakespeare or the like. – Lars Ericson Oct 6 at 20:26
  • NICE! So it starts in 1650? – Lars Ericson Oct 6 at 23:48

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