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.
In 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.