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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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.
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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