long (or strong) arm





far-reaching power or influence





The earlier expression long hands was originally after classical Latin an nescis longas regibus esse manus?, used by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – circa 17 AD) in the epistolary poems Epistulæ Heroidum, (Letters of Heroines). While her husband, King Menelaus, is away, Helen writes to Paris:

sic meus hinc vir abest ut me custodiat absens
an nescis longas regibus esse manus?
My husband is gone from here in such a way that while absent he is able to guard me; do you not know that kings have long hands?

In Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus (1539), an adaptation of Adagiorum chiliades (Thousands of proverbs) by the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536), Richard Taverner (1505?-1575) wrote:

Longae regum manus.
Kynges haue longe hādes. They can brynge in men, they can pluck in thinges, though they be a great weye of.

He also wrote:

Multae regum aures, atque oculi.
Kynges haue many eares & manye eyes, as who shulde saye, no thynge can be spoken, nothynge doon so secretly agaynst kynges and Rulers, but by one meanes or other at length it wol come to their knowlege. They haue eares yᵗ lysten an hundreth myles from thē, they haue eyes that espye out more thynges, then men wolde thynke. Wherfore it is wysdome for subiectes, not onlye to kepe theyr princes lawes & ordinaūces in the face of the worlde, but also preuely: namely syth Paule wold haue rulers obeyed euen for conscience sake.

Similarly, in The Scourge of Folly (1611), the Anglo-Welsh poet John Davies of Hereford (circa 1565-1618) wrote:

Kings haue long armes, wide eares, and piercing eyes,
They must haue such, or els they be not kinges.

The English poet Samuel Pordage (1633-91?), or his father, the Anglican priest, astrologer, alchemist and Christian mystic John Pordage (1607-81), used a different image in Mundorum explicatio, or, The explanation of an hieroglyphical figure wherein are couched the mysteries of the external, internal, and eternal worlds, shewing the true progress of a soul from the court of Babylon to the city of Jerusalem, from the Adamical fallen state to the regenerate and angelical (1661):

This is a special favour to thee shown,
For tho, that many to this place have flown,
And that the long Arm of Humility
Hath reach’d them many Fruits of Life’s fair Tree,
Yet these fair fruits they never tasted; they
Could only with their eyes feed on their gay.
Many may unto Paradise attain,
And other Fruit of Life’s blest Tree may gain,
And yet may not permitted be to tast
These blessed Fruits, which thou so freely mayst.

The expression the (long or strongarm of the law, which means the far-reaching, inescapable or punitive power and influence of the law, seems to have appeared in the second half of the 18th century. One of its earliest users was a certain Francis Higgins, who, in a letter dated 22nd December 1786 to the Wardens and Brethren of the Corporation of Hosiers, or Guild of St. George, Dublin, complained that “many unqualified persons obtruded into the Common’s-hall, and took upon themselves a clamorous part” in a late election in the Corporation; he threatened:

PARTY may for a moment silence Reason, and overcome good sense; but the arm of the LAW will be at all times too strong for PARTY; and if you cannot obtain your just rights otherwise, I shall not hesitate to apply to that protection.

The English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70) combined the two usual forms of the expression in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841):

The gamblers, Isaac List and Jowl, with their trusty confederate Mr. James Groves of unimpeachable memory, pursued their course with varying success, until the failure of a spirited enterprise in the way of their profession, dispersed them in different directions, and caused their career to receive a sudden check from the long and strong arm of the law.

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