“A patch on”

I’m not sure what this blog would do without Ben Brantley. The American-born New York Times theater critic is a veritable font of NOOBs, notably obscure ones, like “gives me the pip” and “twig.” He struck again yesterday in the first line of his review of Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman: “No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.”

Since I didn’t recognize “won’t be a patch on,” and since it came from Brantley, I assumed it was a Britishism. I assumed right. The OED defines “not a patch on” as “in no way comparable to, not nearly as good as.” All the citations (starting in 1860) are from British sources, for example, the Daily Telegraph in 1994: “Set against native trees, Leyland green looks very synthetic, and is not a patch on yew.”

I’m going to label the phrase as an outlier, since when I searched Google Books for it, every single hit came from British or Commonwealth sources, including the title of the 2009 novel Not a Patch on Charlotte Cox.


But in any case, cheers, Mr. Brantley.

7 thoughts on ““A patch on”

  1. We’ve exchanged a few comments about this via Twitter (because I mentioned growing up with this in the U.S. South), but here are a few examples from American newspapers. (This is just a sampling, obviously, and pretty much chosen at random. The database at genealogybank.com has 900 hits, though some likely don’t represent the idiom itself.)

    This place defies all competition for wickness. Julesberg or Ellsworth is not a patch on it. There is not a day passes but what a murder or theft is committed; which does not speak wiell for the morality of the community.[From “From the Frontier,” The Weekly Free Press (Atchison, Kansas), 2 November 1867.]

    THE FURNITURE IN SOLOMON’S TEMPLE was not a patch on what you can buy in the PROVIDENCE FURNITURE CO.’S spendid new RETAIL store, 193 Broad street. [An advertisement printed in the Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press, 31 October 1874, p. 3.]

    The race in the contest has now reached fever heat and the excitement is becoming intense, although at the present time it is not a patch on what it will be at the close of Saturday night, March 5. [From “Over One Million Votes Cast in the Big Contest Yesterday,” The Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, 27 February, 1910.]

    Salt water messes up clothes to no end, but that is not a patch on what it does to tackle. The fisherman who likes spic and span tackle is in for a rude shock. [From Gordon MacQuarrie’s “Right off the Reel,” The Milwaukee Journal, 23 February 1941, Section 3, p. 6.]

    But any trouble a child is apt to get into from dressing up like a “hippie” is not a patch on disasters that can result from the total estrangement from his parents. [Louis Cassels, “God does not judge people by the length of their hair,” The Evansville (Illinois) Press, 22 August 1970, p. 6.]

    Let me know if you’d like to see anything else.

  2. I heard it used on Car Talk probably a decade ago. I assumed it was something specific to their milieu, whatever that was.

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