at arm’s length: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘at arm's length’ mean?

The idiom "at arm's length" means to keep someone or something at a distance or to be cautious and avoid becoming too involved or close to them.

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The idiomatic phrase "at arm's length" is commonly used in the English language. It conveys the idea of keeping a certain distance or level of detachment from someone or something. The origin and usage of this phrase can be traced back to several sources, shedding light on its meaning and implications.

One possible origin of the idiom "at arm's length" can be found in the sport of boxing. Fighters are often advised to keep their opponents at arm's length, meaning to maintain a safe distance where they can defend themselves effectively while still being able to strike back. This notion of maintaining a physical distance can be metaphorically extended to interpersonal relationships and interactions.

Another possible origin of the idiom can be attributed to the medieval practice of reaching out or striking someone using the length of one's arm. This gesture symbolized caution and restraint, implying that one did not want to get too close or intimate with the other person.

The idiom "at arm's length" also has connections to the concept of personal boundaries and protection of one's personal space. By keeping someone or something at arm's length, individuals aim to preserve their emotional well-being and avoid potential harm or discomfort. This can manifest in maintaining formality, avoiding close physical proximity, or setting clear relationship boundaries.

In a broader context, "at arm's length" can be interpreted as a strategy for self-preservation or maintaining neutrality. It can describe a cautious approach towards business dealings, legal matters, or personal judgments. By keeping oneself at arm's length, one demonstrates detachment and objectivity.

Experienced writer categorised idioms using advanced in-depth analysis.

While the idiom "at arm's length" conveys the notion of keeping a distance, it does not necessarily imply complete avoidance or disengagement. Instead, it suggests caution and self-protection that allows for observation and evaluation without becoming overly involved.

Relationships, both personal and professional, are often governed by the concept of keeping someone at arm's length. This means maintaining a comfortable distance to avoid emotional entanglement while still being able to interact in a meaningful way. In personal relationships, keeping someone at arm's length can ensure a healthy level of independence and personal space.

Similarly, in the business world, transactions and negotiations are often approached with the idea of keeping the other party at arm's length. This allows for objective evaluation of the situation and prevents overly emotional decision-making. By maintaining this level of detachment, individuals are able to negotiate effectively and protect their own interests.

The related idiom "at bay" has a similar meaning to "at arm's length." This phrase conveys the idea of keeping something or someone at a safe distance to prevent it from causing harm or becoming a threat. It can be used in a literal sense, such as keeping a dangerous animal at bay, or metaphorically, such as keeping one's emotions at bay.

By including these related idioms in our discussion of "at arm's length," we can see how they all revolve around the concept of distance, caution, and self-protection. Whether it's maintaining a physical distance in a boxing match, practicing caution in personal relationships, or keeping emotions under control, these idioms provide a framework for understanding the importance of boundaries and self-preservation.

The idiom "at arm's length" has its roots in sports, medieval practices, and personal boundaries. It signifies the act of maintaining a distance, be it physical or emotional, in various contexts. By using this idiom, individuals establish a sense of caution, self-preservation, and neutrality. The richness of this phrase lies not only in its literal imagery but also in its metaphorical implications, making it a valuable addition to the English language.

Example usage

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

  1. He keeps his colleagues at arm's length to maintain a professional demeanor.
  2. The wealthy woman held her suitors at arm's length to protect her independence.
  3. As a cautious investor, he always keeps risky stocks at arm's length.

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