The Origin Behind The Phrase Long Arm Of The Law

Phrases, mantras, and clichés abound in all areas of the English vernacular. When it comes to police and the daunting consequences they bring down on criminals, there's no shortage of supplementary terms: the fuzz, five-0, boys in blue, coppers ... and of course, the long arm of the law. One might assume the obvious inspiration behind the latter phrase has something to do with a far-reaching arm whose grasp nobody can escape from, but the origins behind the label are a little different than you might think.

Most times, you can look back at recent years to find out where and when a phrase originated. Other times, you have to turn over a few more pages of the proverbial idiomatic history book. According to World Wide Words, the first recorded use of long arm of the law is believed to have surfaced near the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Tailor made

In George Lewis Smyth's "The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul's Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey" (1826), there's a passage that employs the ominous phrase in the context of an exchange between a college student and a tailor. After the student fails to pay his bill to the clothes maker, the passage declares: "But the tailor pursued him in his retreat with the long arm of the law; he was arrested in Sunderland, and conducted back to the college by bailiffs," as World Wide Words notes.

Ergo, the words could have been something of a pun that a tailor might readily use, given that he's likely dealing with arm length renditions for clothing throughout a good part of his day. So yes, there's something inherently literal at the core of the phrase that has so widely become a reference to everyday exchanges with authorities across the English-speaking world.

Reaching farther back

Digging a little deeper uncovers an example from 1539 when a widely used proverb at the time attributed "long arms (or hands)" to Kings, who were the head honchos of the law at the time, as Dictionary notes. Otherwise, usage of the phrase in North America was first recorded in 1844. A passage from The Milwaukie Commercial Herald (proper spelling at the time) recounted an instance in which a New Yorker was caught practicing bigamy: "The long arm of the law dropped down on him, and walked him off to prison for bigamy" (per World Wide Words).

A variation of the phrase started taking form in England and the U.S. when people started referring to the judiciary system as "the strong arm of the law." The most accepted theory is that a more singular version  — long arm of the law — became more popular and therefore lived to integrate itself into the modern urban lexicon (per World Wide Words).