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The meaning and origin of the expression: A country mile

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A country mile

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A country mile'?

'A country mile' means 'a long distance, especially one that was expected to be shorter. For example - "Red Rum won the Grand National by a country mile".

The phrase has also been used to refer to surprisingly large amounts. For example - "She's definitely the best pianist in the competition - by a country mile.".

What's the origin of the phrase 'A country mile'?

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'A country mile'I should say at the outset that no one knows the precise origin if the phrase 'a country mile'. As is usual in such circumstances many people have put forward guesses.

I won't attempt to rank these, after all, they are just guesses, but here's a, possibly incomplete, list:

- Roads are more windy in the country than in the town and so a mile as the crow flies is much shorter than the actual journey by road.
- The English Statute Mile was established in 1593. Country folk were took longer to adopt the new measurement than town folk and so a country mile differed from a town mile.
- A country mile refers to a mile that is arduous, not one that is long. Travel in the country is more arduous.
- Rural dwellers had no means of knowing precise distance so, if they were to say that a place was 'a mile' away, it may be much further.
- Travel in the country was normally by foot. A mile might seem a long way when having to walk it.

For my part, I've always thought the last of these was the derivation of 'a country mile'. However, 'always thought' and 'true' are often strangers.

The complexity of what a mile actually is, or more to the point was when this phrase was coined, is more confusing than enlightening. Each country that has used a mile as a measurement of distance has defined it differently from all the others and most of them has changed the measurement at some point. As it seems clear that the actual measured distance isn't the relevant point in the derivation of 'a country mile', I'll go no further along that road.

What may help is a look at some documentary evidence. The first use that I can find of the expression in print is in a poem by the Cornish seaman Frederick de Kruger - The Villager's Tale,1829:

The travelling stage had set me down
Within a mile of yon church-town;
'T was long indeed, a country mile.
But well I knew each field or style;

Another early citation is also from England - in Samuel Maunder's reference book The Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference, 1850:

Robin Hood shot a full mile; and, according to his bard, a north-country mile was equal to two statute ones.

It's reasonable to assume that the expression originated in the UK. Indeed, as Samuel Maunder and de Kruger were both from the English West Country, it is quite likely that's where the phrase was coined.

The expression crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century and is still widely used there. Hardly any early 20th century report of a baseball game fail to use the expression when a ball is hit out of the ground.

The expression is used in pretty well every English-speaking country and many have their own variants of it. People also speak of a 'Welsh mile', 'a Scottish mile', 'Irish', Dutch', 'German' and so on.

Although there is wide usage of the phrase it took some time to become established. Here's an example from England in August 1863, in a piece in the Newcastle Chronicle newspaper:

The spot was stated on the placards to be a mile from the town, but, as might have been expected, the distance proved to be of that indeterminate quantity which generally goes to a "country mile" or what is termed in Scotland "a mile and a buttock" - in fact nearer two miles than one.

That's helpful enough to define what was meant by the expression. What's more helpful is the use of quotation marks around country mile. The singling out of text in the way is a reliable indication that the writer wasn't expecting readers in Newcastle to know what the phrase meant. Many later citations, stretching well into the 20th century, do the same thing.

Having looked into a country mile I'm inclined to think that what was being referred to when the phrase was coined was 'a distance of about a mile'. It is certainly the case that in Cornwall, where the early examples of the phrase originate, the natives take a casual approach to measurement. Anyone visiting the place (which I very happily do every year) might be told that some urgent task would be done 'dreckly'. Understanding that to mean 'directly' an emmet (someone not from Cornwall) might expect that meant 'soon'. Actually, that's not how things roll in Cornwall. Dreckly, means 'sometime' - more 'manyana' than 'now'.

If we could turn the clock back to 19th century Cornwall we could be sure what they meant by 'a country mile'. As we can't we can do no more than guess.