“Not By a Long Chalk”

Just as if it were a chrysanthemum, Alex Beam planted a NOOB in the opening of a recent column in the Boston Globe:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The NOOB in question is “not by a long chalk” (which I hereafter abbreviate as NBALC). I know he planted it because he proceeded to go on Facebook and write:  “‘Not by a long chalk’; is that one of those “one-off Britishisms” that Ben Yagoda is always on about?” First of all, it’s “not one-off Britishisms,” not “one-off Britishisms.” Second of all, no.

Alex can certainly be forgiven for his mistake, since for nearly a hundred years , NBALC has indeed been more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., where the preferred wording is the similar-sounding “not by a long shot.”A 1995 New York Times review of a book of Italo Calvino short stories notes that the translator “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages, some colloquial (‘Mummy,’ ‘not by a long chalk’), others antiquated (‘wont,’ ‘woe betide us’).”

But NBALC, like bumbershoot, actually sprang from American soil. John Russell Bartlett included it in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Three years earlier, “The Knickerbocker,” a New York monthly, printed this saw: “THANKSGIVING ‘aint what it used to was, when we were a little shaver, sprouting up out of our boots among the green hills of Vermont—not by a long chalk.”

We can understand the confusion by taking a look at Google Ngram Viewer chart. The red line shows U.S. use of the phrase, the blue line British use.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 10.22.15 PMIn other words, starting in about 1920, “not by a long chalk” became inexplicably popular in the U.K., to the point where people like the New York Times reviewer and Alex Beam thought it was a Britishism. But is it? NBALC.


16 thoughts on ““Not By a Long Chalk”

  1. “which I hereafter abbreviate as”
    Hey, Ben, what’s wrong with “hereinafter”? Save letters, they’re rare!


  2. “You had me at NOOB ” ….With Alex Beam’s retweet of the NBALC posting, I am now introduced to and am an instant fan of NOOB master Ben Yagoda. As fate would have it ,I just read an article regarding the Bletchley Park female code breakers in which it was reported many on the night shift would use the ENIGMA MACHINE to dry/hang their “smalls”….or what American women once referred to as their “delicates” …..wonder if “smalls” still in use across the pond? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/11226192/Bletchley-Park-codebreakers-dried-their-knickers-on-Hitlers-Enigma-machine.html

  3. The military use/used the word chalk for various reasons and I presume the surge in the use in Britain in the 1940s may be related to the influx of allied troops prior to the Normandy invasion. My take would be that a long chalk was probably bad news, unlucky or unlikely. I expect you can google this. I haven’t so I’m prepared to be shot down here!

  4. Again with the Bumbershoot! I’m 60 years old, British, and have neither heard nor read the word Bumbershoot in my life, till I saw it in your column.

    1. Curiously, I came across the word “bumbershoot” just last week, in a story by the American author Harry Turtledove. And, if I hadn’t seen it in this blog, I wouldn’t have know what it meant. (It was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so I guess it was used to suggest Britishness.)

  5. And the Radio Times (a TV and radio listings magazines originally set up by the BBC in the twenties) coincidentally in their Dictionary Corner section discusses the origin of the phrase “by a long chalk”. Keeping score in pub games is their opinion, but they don’t say whether this was particularly US or UK.

    1. I have the paper edition of the magazine. Although the Radio Times does have a website, it doesn’t have everything from the magazine online. Dictionary Corner does not appear to be there.

      The column is by Susie Dent, best known in the UK as the resident lexicographer on the TV programme Countdown, although she has written books on language.

  6. “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages” – surely that deserves a comment.

  7. On ‘World Wide Words’. No idea if correct:
    This mainly British expression means “not by any means”, “not at all” and often turns up in conventional expressions such as they weren’t beaten yet, not by a long chalk.
    It goes back to the days in which a count or score of almost any kind was marked up on a convenient surface using chalk. At a pub or ale house this might be a note of the amount of credit you had been given (often called the chalk in the early nineteenth century), which Charles Dickens refers to in Great Expectations: “There was a bar at the Jolly Bargemen, with some alarmingly long chalk scores in it on the wall at the side of the door, which seemed to me to be never paid off.”
    But the expression almost certainly comes from the habit of using chalk in such establishments to mark the score in a game, a habit which now survives in British pubs mainly in the game of darts. A chalk was the name given a single mark or score, so that a person might explain that somebody or other had lost a game of skittles by four chalks or you needed 31 chalks to finish. If your opponent had a long chalk, a big score, he was doing well.
    The expression indicates a determined intention to continue, though the game is going against you. Your opponent may have a long chalk, but you’re not done for yet.

  8. This discussion also reminds me of two expressions that can cause confusion between the US and the UK.

    The use of a slate in a pub to indicate creditors has been given as the origin of the English term “to slate”, meaning to disparage or to disapprove. (Chambers Dictionary, however, gives a different derivation, from an Old Norse word meaning to bait.) You will see things like, “The new play at the National Theatre has been slated by the critics”, meaning they didn’t like it.

    The American term “to slate”, however, means to schedule. Back in the seventies a music magazine noted that it was announced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that “Sir Michael Tippett’s new symphony had been slated”. How, wondered the commentator, could that be when the work hadn’t been performed yet.

    I grew up in the north of England near to an old coal mining area. Some of the villages still had the cottages built to house the miners. And by the door to each was a slate on which the miner would chalk which shift he was on. The mine employed a man to go round and wake the miners in time for their shifts. This was called knocking-up.

    And, to this day, I’m told that some Americans visiting the UK have been astonished to be asked what time they want knocking up.

  9. I find it very offensive, that phrase about “combining standard English with British usages”. Is the author trying to say that normal English from England is non-standard?

  10. The above mentioned “World Wide Words” article also records a much earlier use of the phrase than any mentioned in this article (and in a different country to boot):

    “For the earliest example, we must turn yet again to Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Nova Scotia, who included it several times in his book The Clockmaker of 1835: ‘Depend on it, Sir, said he, with a most philosophical air, this Province is much behind the intelligence of the age. But if it is behind us in that respect, it is a long chalk ahead on us in others.’ ”

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