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I was told that when I say

He doesn't know him from Adam,

I mean

He doesn't know him at all.

But if I say

He doesn't know him from his schooldays.

It still means that he knows him!

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    Why do you think that He doesn't know him from his schooldays means that he does know him? It would only have that sense if you added something like In fact, he first met him at university. Commented Jun 9 at 14:54
  • In "He doesn't know him from his schooldays.", the from clause is indicating a specific time and place. While the sentence as a whole does not definitively state that he does know him (so can be contradicted by other evidence), it's implied that he does know him other than this particular qualification -- because it would otherwise not be useful to make that statement. In other words: he does know him, but not from his schooldays.
    – Miral
    Commented Jun 10 at 4:02

1 Answer 1

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It's an idiom. Note that the from before Adam is not temporal, as the from before his schooldays (see Collins entry 19). In the idiom you are asking about from is understood:

as not being like used to express difference, distinction, etc.

to tell one sister from the other (Collins)

Idiomonline explains that don't know someone from Adam means:

to not know someone at all, having never met them, or to be completely unable to recognize them.

As for how it originated the site says:

Used since the 1800’s, this idiom derives from the biblical story of Adam, the first man, created by God. The idea seems to be that Adam lived so long ago that nobody living today could possibly recognize him.

Charles Dickens used the expression in his story The Old Curiosity Shop (1840):

He had scarcely bestowed upon him his blessing, and followed it with a general remark touching the present state and prospects of the weather, when, lifting up his eyes, he beheld the single gentleman of Bevis Marks in earnest conversation with Christopher Nubbles.
‘Halloo!’ said Dick, ‘who is that?’
‘He called to see my Governor this morning,’ replied Mr. Chuckster; ‘beyond that, I don’t know him from Adam.’

A bit later, off ox was added to the idiom, but it has now become less used in this form, according to The Grammarist:

The idiom don’t know someone from Adam also means that the speaker is not acquainted with the person, and the phrase seems to be older than the idiom don’t know someone from Adam’s off ox. The adding of the expression off ox seems to have been a colorful emphasis tacked on to the phrase don’t know someone from Adam.

Though the idiom don’t know someone from Adam’s off ox has been in use since at least the latter 1880s, it did not emerge into popular culture until Bill Clinton used the term in the 1990s. Today, the idiom don’t know someone from Adam’s off ox is losing popularity, but the phrase don’t know someone from Adam is still strong.


EDIT: There is a note in The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer (2013) quoted by FreeDictionary which says:

One writer suggests that the inability to recognize Adam is the height of foolishness, since he had no name and wore only a fig leaf, but this point does not seem particularly relevant.

This seems to confirm @PaulTanenbaum's comment.

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    My hunch is that Idiomonline has the wrong idea about the expression’s origin. I don’t think it involves Adam’s being so remote in the past, but rather his being unique, as e pluribus primum. This would render him eminently distinguishable from anybody else, and thus make the expression all the more intense: I recognize him so little that I don’t know him even from Adam. Commented Jun 9 at 19:31

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