You can find Streets Ahead on the High Street
Wow, this is a tricky one. I confess that I was not even aware of the expression until a reader named Gareth commented, “Is ‘streets ahead’ well-established in American sources? Earliest OED reference is 1885 in Ireland. Recently a character in NBC’s ‘Community’ tried to ‘coin the phrase’, without realising it already existed (for the backstory see http://earnthis.net/2010/04/community-is-streets-ahead/
First of all, in answer to Gareth’s question, no. “Streets ahead” (which the OED defines as “far ahead of something or someone, far superior”) has never appeared in the New York Times–as uttered or written by an American–and that means from 1851 to the present. Yet it somehow has the reputation of being a catchphrase. A New Yorker blog post from January 201o revived the venerable character created by Frank Sullivan for the magazine in days of yore, Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliche Expert, and had him say this about the then-brand-new Apple iPad:
It reflects the company’s commitment to cutting-edge design and elegant technology solutions. They’re the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. They’re streets ahead of their competition and they have both the ground game and air attack to take on anyone.
I believe, as Gareth suggested, that it all goes back to “Community,” which, by the way, is one of the favorite shows of Elizabeth Yagoda. The excllent article to which he linked (on the blog “Earn This”) explains the whole complicated story, but basically it started during an online competition for best TV show in which “Community” was vying with a couple of other series. A supporter of the other shows tweeted: “both Modern Family and Glee are streets ahead of your meta bullshit.” The creator of “Community,” Dan Harmon, got wind of this, and, apparently unaware that streets ahead
is an actual British expression, spent the next couple of months mocking it online, going so far as to create this animated video
on the Extranormal site.
Art started imitating life, or maybe it’s the other way round, with this Twitter exchange between Harmon and a fan:
@tim_stoltz : @danharmon
Your hatred of “Glee” has made its way into “Community;” how long till your new favorite phrase makes it?
@danharmon : @tim_stotz
I’m putting it in the current script, so it’ll be a few weeks. But I have to get the world understanding it by then!
And sure enough, in the 22 April 2010 episode, Pierce, the character played by Chevy Chase, made a star-crossed attempt to push streets ahead as a catch phrase.
An interesting sublot is that several people posted comments to the “Earn This” article along the lines of this one:
How is ‘streets ahead’ a British or Irish phrase in any way shape or form? I’ve lived in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, for my whole life and have never heard it used until Community.
So maybe, in addition to not being a true NOOB, streets ahead isn’t even a proper Britishism. I await further enlightenment.
Ironically (as U.S. newsreaders like to say), this past fall, NBC announced it was putting “Community” on hiatus. Dan Harmon posted: “Streets ahold.”