arm’s length: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘arm's length’ mean?

The idiom "arm's length" means to keep a distance or maintain a cautious or detached relationship with someone or something.

Idiom Explorer

Decoding the Distance

The idiom "arm's length" is commonly used to describe a situation where two parties maintain a distance or lack of familiarity with one another. This figurative phrase has its origins in the literal act of keeping someone away by extending one's arm fully.

The idiom can be traced back to the 16th century, with its earliest known written usage appearing in Sir Thomas More's 'The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght.' More used the phrase "right jeaousy & suspition is alwayes measured, by others that be familiar, & by them at armes lenght." This validates the fact that the idiom was in existence and understood during that time period.

The idiom is often associated with maintaining a cautious distance from someone. It implies a level of wariness or suspicion, suggesting that one is not willing to get too close or involved in a particular situation or relationship.

The arm's length expressed the distance within their relationship.

The phrase "at arm's length" is related to the idiom "arm's length" and has been used in legal contexts. It indicates the concept of keeping transactions or relationships at a distance to ensure fairness and objectivity. For example, in corporate governance, the practice of keeping related parties at arm's length is essential to avoid conflicts of interest and promote ethical conduct.

While the idiom mostly retains its original meaning and usage, it has expanded to encompass a broader range of situations. Nowadays, it can also suggest a lack of familiarity or close emotional connection with someone or something.

These examples illustrate how the idiom has evolved to capture the idea of maintaining detachment or a degree of separation from certain aspects of life.

The idiom "arm's length" remains deeply ingrained in the English language, serving as a reminder of the importance of boundaries and distance in various relationships and interactions. It signifies a certain level of caution and self-preservation while acknowledging the need for emotional and physical space.

The possibilities remain open for its continued evolution and adaptation to meet the changing needs and dynamics of contemporary society. As language constantly evolves, the idiom "arm's length" may offer new interpretations and applications in the future, reflecting the ever-changing nature of human relationships and interactions.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom *arm's length* can be used in a sentence:

  • She kept the person at arm's length to avoid getting emotionally involved.
  • The company maintained an arm's length relationship with its suppliers.
  • He always kept his business partners at arm's length to ensure impartiality in decision-making.

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