Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Episode 186: Give an Inch, Take a Mile Show Notes

 Click to read more

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 186: Give an Inch, Take a Mile

Record Date: March 16, 2023

Air Date: March 22, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever shown someone a little kindness, and then had that person take advantage of you? I’m sure many, if not all, of us have had that happen before. It is probably more rare than we think, but because we as humans remember negative experiences so well, we remember those times where someone took advantage of our hospitality or kindness. As you might have guessed, we even have a saying for such a thing. I gave an inch and they took a mile. 


This phrase is interesting for a couple of points. First, it is one I’ve heard many times and I’ve used a few times as well. But it is still a resoundingly negative phrase. It’s also interesting because it is a latter version of an earlier phrase, which will get to in a few. 

First, the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. 


give him an inch and he'll take a mile: the slightest concession will be unscrupulously exploited.

End Quote

I feel like dictionaries shouldn’t be allowed to use big words in their definitions. Scruples are a thought or circumstance that troubles the mind or conscience. So if someone did not have scruples, or were unscrupulous, it means they are not troubled with doubts and are willing to do most anything.  So our definition means the slightest thing given will be exploited without hesitation or doubt. Basically, taken advantage of. 

But as I alluded to earlier, give an inch and they’ll take a mile wasn’t the original usage of this phrase. And my reason for doing this episode is because of our top patron, Mary Halsig Lopez. She recently asked about the phrase, Give them an inch and he’ll take an ell. That is E-L-L. I knew that ell was an obsolete unit of measurement, equally roughly 45 inches. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do for work tomorrow, but I have that stuck in my brain folds. Anyway, I didn’t realize that ell was used before mile in this phrase. Back to the Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of ELL.


A measure of length varying in different countries. The English ell = 45 in.; the Scotch = 37·2; the Flemish = 27 in. Now historical or with reference to foreign countries, the English measure being obsolete.

End Quote

An ell in this way has been used since the 1000s when it appeared in the West Saxon Gospels. I won’t attempt to read the phrase since Old English  is basically a different language. 

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of this one, too. Here’s a quick definition, which is probably a better way to have defined our phrase as it is used today.


Contrasted with inch, span, etc.; esp. in proverbial phrase, give him an inch and he'll take an ell: meaning that undue advantage will be taken of a slight concession.

End Quote

This one has been around for a long time as well. The first attestation from the Oxford English Dictionary is from another dictionary in 1546. This is by John Heywood and is titled A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue · 1st edition.


Ye lyked..better an ynche of your wyll, Than an ell of your thrifte.

End Quote

While not the same syntax as our current phrase, it is one of the first instances I could find ell being used figuratively and in contrast with an inch. And it wasn’t long before we were seeing things begin to follow the syntax, like this early version from 1580 in Humfrey Gifford’s “A posie of gilloflowers”


Whereas shee tooke an inche of liberty before, tooke an Ell afterwardes.

End Quote

Here’s another from 1860 in