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Dear Word Detective: What is the best connection you can dream up between “lying” and “drawing a long bow”? Is it related to what I call “adding to the truth”? I used to see it as related to playing on a violin but I could never get anywhere with that. — Ken in Alaska.
Ah, yes, the violin, the most deceptive of musical instruments. So fragile and delicate, yet so shamelessly manipulative. The mere sound of swelling violins on a film soundtrack has long been recognized as a signal of impending hokum and hornswoggling, and violins are, of course, anathema to cats. No instrument, save the harmonica, is so redolent of deceit and perfidy. And it doesn’t help that the things make anyone playing one look like Richard Nixon in his worst “I am not a crook” moment. The furrowed brow, the trembling jowls; like a bulldog eating an end table.
Thank heavens that violins have nothing to do with the phrase “to draw a long bow,” eh? It’s an idiom dating back to at least the 1660s meaning “to exaggerate; to tell tall tales,” so it’s both more and less than simply “lying.” There’s something about the topic of exaggeration, incidentally, that brings out the colorful phrases. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Historical Thesaurus lists such synonyms for “draw the long bow” as “to go beyond the moon” (circa 1430), “to turn every goose into a swan” (1621), “to overegg the pudding” (1845), and, of course, “to lay it on with a trowel” (which, a bit surprisingly, dates back to around 1616).
The “long bow” in the phrase is the English “longbow,” a fearsome weapon which dominated European warfare from its rise in the 13th century until the widespread adoption of gunpowder in the 16th century. The longbow was indeed “long,” usually roughly the height of a typical archer, made of English yew wood, and required a hefty 90-110 pounds of force to “draw” in order to fire an arrow. Using a longbow required long training as well as development of the physical strength required to use one. But in trained hands, the longbow was capable of punching an arrow through Medieval metal armor at great distances, and the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was both the most famous victory and the high water mark of the longbow.
By the way, to “draw” (pull back) the bowstring on a bow employs “draw” (from the Old English “dragan,” to pull or drag, also related to “drag”) in its original sense of “to pull.” When an artist “draws” a picture, the pencil, etc., is “pulled” across the paper. “Draw” in the archery sense dates to the early 14th century; the “create a picture” sense arose around 1200.
As the “killer app” of Medieval warfare, the longbow inspired a large body of popular lore about the extraordinary feats of its users. English folk legends centering on Robin Hood, for instance, depict him as a master of the longbow and an almost supernaturally gifted marksman, easily capable of hitting tiny targets at enormous distances. The longbow also featured in a number of popular sayings still used today. “To have many strings to one’s bow,” a reference to archers carrying at least one spare bowstring into battle, means to have several alternatives or resources available (“Miss Bertram … might be said to have two strings to her bow,” Jane Austen, 1814). “To shoot another’s bow” means to practice an art or skill not your own, and “the bent of one’s bow” refers to a person’s character or inclination (“I have the bent of his bowe, that I know,” 1562).
Given the centrality of the longbow to English culture and the number of legends and “tall tales” that sprang up about the near-magical skills of its users, it’s not surprising that someone relaying an exaggeration or fantastic story would be said to be “drawing a long bow” as if relating Robin Hood-esque feats of derring-do. Appearing first in print in 1668 (“There came to us several Tradesmen; the first of them a Poor Rogue that made profession of drawing the long Bow”), to “draw the long bow” is the equivalent of telling the traditional “fish story” about the huge catch that got away. It’s not really lying, because no one within earshot truly believes it’s true.