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The meaning and origin of the expression: Not by a long shot

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Not by a long shot

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Not by a long shot'?

Not by any means; a good distance away from being true. It is used for emphasis when something a described as being far from its mark. For example, "$100,000 isn't enough to buy a house in New York - not by a long shot".

What's the origin of the phrase 'Not by a long shot'?

"Not by a long shot' is a 19th century expression that originated in the USA. It is the equivalent of the variant that is more used elsewhere in the English-speaking world - 'not by a long chalk'.

Not by a long shot

The first time the expression 'a long shot' was used it was as the name of a type of long barrelled gun and, by extension, the group of soldiers who used such guns. This dates back as far as the 16th century and a reference to it appears in Giovanni-Tommaso Minadoi's History of the Warres betweene the Turkes & Persians, 1595:

And presently after them, the Long-shot wrought in Algier and called Sciemete, being the ordinarie and perpetuall Guarde of the Generall.

A long shot later came to be the extreme distance that a gun or cannon could reach. Clearly, someone standing at such a distance from a gun would be at little risk of being shot. The use of 'a long shot' to refer to a venture with little hope of success derives from this 'remote distance' meaning. That being said, that assessment of risk didn't work out well for General John Sedgewick, immediately after he uttered his famous 'they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance' remark.

The phrase was co-opted into the extended 'not by a long shot' form in the 19th century. The first example that I know of also dates from the time of the American Civil War, in the US author Mary Boykin Chesnut's war diaries, 1861:

'They don't pay the soldiers every week.' 'Not by a long shot,' cried a soldier laddie.

'By a long shot' now mostly appears in the negative, like 'laughing matter', 'rest for the wicked' and 'all the tea in China'.