Long chalk

Not bloody likely.

Dear Word Detective:  In books written by English authors, I have come across the phrase “not by a long chalk.”  This seems to mean the same thing as the American “not by a long shot.”  My son thinks this may have something to do with cannon shots, while I’m trying to factor in the old racing tote boards in English betting parlors with odds posted in chalk on high and wide boards. Probably the correct answer is “None of the above.” Help! — Alix G Benson.

Well, you never know.  It might well be “all of the above.”  According to the theory of “overdetermination,” developed by Freud to explain dreams but applied to the social realm by “Loopy Louie” Althusser and others, things don’t always happen for a single reason, but for a whole bunch of reasons, any one of which would have sufficed on its own.  The universe, in other words, is really into overkill, and this makes it very hard to figure out exactly why something happens.  Personally, I have resolved this contradiction by living in rural Ohio, where absolutely nothing ever happens.

Your hunch that “not by a long chalk,”meaning “not even by a remote chance” or “not even close” (“The big fight between inflation and deflation hasn’t been won yet, not by a long chalk,” MoneyWeek, 9/09), refers to chalk marks on a board is right on the money.  The board was most likely in a pub (where scores in darts, for instance, would be tallied) and a “long chalk” was a high score (a long series of chalk strokes), a daunting and thus unlikely obstacle for an opponent to overcome.  To say that the economy, for instance, has not yet rebounded “by a long chalk” is to say that there are huge obstacles to reaching that goal and success is far from certain.

Although “not by a long chalk” is most popular in Britain, it’s not entirely unknown here in the US, and the earliest citation for the phrase in the Dictionary of American Regional English is only slightly more recent than the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But Americans are far likelier to be familiar with “not by a long shot,” used in the same sense of “don’t hold your breath.”  The term “long shot” has been used since the late 18th century to mean a shot taken with a cannon or small arms from a great distance and unlikely to hit its target.  By the mid-19th century, “long shot” was being applied to anything, from race horses to election bids, unlikely to succeed (“A few long-shot winners at the New Orleans race-track,” O. Henry, 1906).

The interesting thing about “not by a long shot” is that it doesn’t really match the “behind in the score” sense of “not by a long chalk.”  Instead it seems to invoke the great distance and difficulty (and consequent unlikelihood of success) of a “long shot,” which is a bit different in sense.  Or maybe I just drink too much coffee.

One intriguing possibility is that “not by a long shot” is actually the relic of a mistake.  A discussion on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society a few years ago suggested that “not by a long shot” in the US actually arose through a mis-hearing of “not by a long chalk.”  Since “long shot” meaning “remote chance” was already a popular idiom in the US, and pub tally boards were not familiar, it would have been natural to substitute “shot” for “chalk.”

Page 1 of 2 | Next page