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.
@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!
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.