Monday, March 4, 2013

Long Shots

When Brits want to say “not by a long shot,” they say “not by a long chalk” instead.  Why the difference?

The American expression, meaning “not likely” or “not even close,” is fairly straightforward in its etymology. The phrase “long shot,” has been in use since the late eighteenth century and refers to the difficulty of hitting a target with a gun fired from a great distance. By the 1880s the term was commonly applied to horses with little chance of winning a race. But it’s not until 1867 that we find the figurative use of “not by a long shot,” meaning extremely unlikely.

What about “long chalk”? That was first used in 1824 and derives from the custom in British pubs of keeping the score of a darts game by scrawling it with chalk on the wall or other convenient surface. A “chalk” was a mark indicating a single point or score, so if you were losing a game by a large margin, you would be losing by a “long chalk,” i.e. a big score.  The phrase “not by a long chalk” probably originated from a losing player’s indicating he was not to be put out of the game, not even by a “long chalk.” Like long shot, long chalk has come to have the sense of “insuperable odds.”

Someone should tell the Bard of Buffalo Bayou that the odds are worse than insuperable against his writing anything intelligent, or even intelligible. You’ll have to be the one to tell him, though; I’m afraid to go near him—as you’ll understand when you read his most recent eructation:

            Cheeky chicks in Chickamauga 
            Chucked a chunk of chalk, 
            Creaky cranks in Chattanooga 
            Cooked a cask of caulk, 
            Crooked crickets crunching crackers 
            Croaked and cracked a crock, 
            Cackling cuckoos, all in chokers, 
            Clicked a clacking clock.

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