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an arm and a leg

Posted: Sun Apr 05, 2009 8:46 am
by Ken Greenwald
I read the following in an historical novel on the subject of slavery in Virginia in the 1800s:
<2003 “As far as anyone could remember, there had never been a colored man in the Manchester County jail. . . Most crimes and misdemeanors by slaves were dealt with by their masters; they could even hang a slave if he killed another slave, but that would be like throwing money down a well after the slave had already thrown the first load of money down . . . He [[the sheriff]] was most reluctant to put a Negro in a facility [[jail cell]] that would one day have to be used again by a white man, a white criminal. He resented Oden [[deputy sheriff]] for putting him in that predicament. He could have chained Jebediah [[the slave]] in Sawyer’s barn out back. But Sawyer wanted an arm and a leg for everything, and [[the sheriff]] thought that the law shouldn’t have to pay that much.”—The Known World by Edward P. Jones, page 252>
The expression AN ARM AND A LEG is one that was extremely common when I was young – which is now getting to be a long time ago – and which I suppose older folks just assume everyone is familiar with. But I wonder just how many teenagers or even folks under say 30 or 40 have actually heard it used, although it would not be hard for them to infer its meaning.

As for it appearing in the 1800s (time frame of the above novel), I had my doubts – it struck me as a more recent expression and likely an anachronism if employed much earlier. However, the narrator in the above novel could be using a term from his own times (the present) as he tells his tale and so, technically, in this instance it may not necessarily be an anachronism. But, in any case, I was interested in seeing what I could come up with. And, surprisingly, it was not included in many sources where I would have expected to find it (e.g., Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Dictionary of American Regional English, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, . . .)


ARM AND A LEG: An exorbitant amount of money, as in These resort hotels charge an arm and a leg for a decent meal, or Fixing the car is going to cost an arm and a leg. According to Eric Partridge, this hyperbolic idiom, which is always used in conjunction with verbs such as ‘cost,’ ‘charge,’ or ‘pay,’ and became widely known from the 1930s on, probably came from the 19th-century American criminal slang phrase, if it takes a leg (that is, even at the cost of a leg), to express desperate determination.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms is very good at definitions and illustrative examples and I always consult it. However, when it comes to etymology, dates, etc., they are often not spectacular. As far as I can make out IT COSTS AND ARM AND A LEG was not widely known in the 1930s – its more like the 1940s and 1950s – and the earliest example I could find was from the 1949 (see quote below). The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest was from 1956.

Eric Partridge’s works such as A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, later edited by his colleague Paul Beale who was of a similar mind, were always very folksy, anecdotal, and interesting to read until their work got decimated in the latest revised edition (2006) by Dalzell & Victor (see below), which in my opinion threw out much of the good stuff, did a very sloppy job on what remained, and in general made a lot of bad choices.

The following is from A DICTIONARY OF CATCH PHRASES (1986) by Eric Partridge and edited by Paul Beale (probably a bit to meandering and not to the point for modern by-the-numbers tastes in dictionaries – but I love it anyway):

AN ARM AND A LEG: This U.S. catch phrase occurs in two forms: they charge you – or you’ve got to pay – an arm and a leg; ‘The price is exorbitant’: ‘general U.S. for at least 30 years [[that would be at least since 1956]], though by now somewhat hackneyed’ (Robert Claiborne, 1978). The British equivalents, it costs the earth or they charge (you) the earth are not catch phrases but ordinary hyperboles [[Hmm! Such fine tuning!]]. Paul Beale: I first heard it costs an arm and a leg from Miss Stella Keenan in 1975 soon after her return to the U.K. from the U.S.; that the phrase has become at least partially anglicised is shown by the allusive cartoon on the cover of Time Out, in the Spring of 1982, showing a would be traveller on the London Underground, where the fares had just been raised enormously, offering his sawn-off arm and leg at the ticket window; and the Poppy Day Appeal poster for 1983 showed two maimed ex-Servicemen, one without an arm, the other with only one leg. Cf. if it takes a leg, the probable origin.

IF IT TAKES A LEG! ‘Threat of a desperado, in search of revenge’ (George P. Burnham, Memoirs of the United States Secret Service, 1872): U.S. underworld: circa 1850-1910. Even at the cost of a leg. Paul Beale: cf the later 20th century, originally U.S. (it’ll cost an) arm and a leg, q.v., for something outrageously expensive.

The following appeared 6 years later in a Partridge/Beale work and there is no mention of the ‘probable origin’ being from if it takes a leg, which I didn’t particularly buy anyway, since an arm and a leg had been used in the literal sense as a great physical loss and it didn’t seem to me that the intermediary underworld term was particularly needed or particularly convincing for the figurative jump to meaning a great cost or exorbitant price.


COST A BOMB (or A PACKET): To be very or unexpectedly expensive, since circa 1960: colloquial E.g., ‘God knows where they get the money—that car must have cost a bomb (or a packet).’ Cf.make a bomb

COST AN ARM AND A LEG: Variation of preceding: colloquial, from US. I first heard the phrase n 1974, from a friend returned from the USA. It appeared later, allusively, in a cartoon concerning London transport fares, on cover of Time Out, 19 March 1982. (Paul Beale).

And here is the fruit of the ‘new and improved’ version of THE NEW PARTRIDGE DICTIONARY OF SLANG AND UNCONVENTIONAL ENGLISH (2006) edited by Dalzell & Victor:


1) A high cost. U.K. 1956
<1993 “I imagine it would cost me and arm and a leg.”—Pronto by E. Leonard, page 100>

<2004 “Anglers are paying an arm and a leg for the right to fish depleted stocks . . .”—Daily Telegraph, 13 June>
2) A prison sentence of five to ten years. U.S.
<1991 “30 + And a Wake-Up: by Lee McNelis, page 6>

Well, the above Dalzell & Victor edition had the first in print date as 1956 via the OED – they obviously didn't do any research on their own. Secondly, they got the country of origin wrong – but they were only off by one letter! Thirdly, their definition #2, in my view, is so obscure as to be well beyond worthy of inclusion – it appears nowhere else that I could find. And fourthly, as far as I could make out, the 1991 source for their quote (minus the quote), seems to be a secret known only to them – it’s a rare day in hell when Google Books and my other book searches can’t snag a 1991 edition of anything, and I’ve got my doubts that the book exists (give it a try yourself). Other than that, their listing is a masterpiece. (>:)

Since IF IT TAKES A LEG has been mentioned, and even though it is likely not the source of our expression of interest, here are some quotes I came up with in my wanderings, anyway:
<1860 “The true Republicans . . . are bound to have him defeated if it takes a leg . . .”—Horicon Argus (Wisconsin), 17 February, page 3>

<1866 “The New York Evening Post is responsible for the following entirely original snake story: A LARGE SNAKE.—A snake measuring fourteen feet and seven inches, recently crawled into a house in Galveston, Texas, and swallowed a leg of mutton. It should be killed ‘if it takes a leg.’”—Galveston Daily News (Texas), 3 August, page 2>

<1872 “He goes straight to New York, and will have satisfaction out of these villains, if it takes a leg,’ or the last dollar he has in the world.”—Memoirs of the United States Secret Service by George Pickering, page 408>

<1883 “—‘yes our house is furnished in the very latest Aunt Teck style from top to bottom. You know my husband keeps up with the times, if it takes a leg.’”—Hancock Herald (Iowa), 5 May, page 1>
And here are some AN ARM AND A LEG quotes, of which there is no scarcity:
<1949 (cartoon) “It never fails! That new wardrobe that costs an arm and a leg . . . 85 fish! Wow! That’s more than I figured on spending, but I guess it’s worth it! Wrap it up.”—Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln), 3 October, page 8>

<1956 “Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.”—Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday, xxiv. page 224>

<1970 (advertisement)“So even though you’re in hot water up to your neck, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg for it.”—Bridgeport Telegram (Connecticut), 16 March, page 10> [[ad for electric water heater]]

<1979 “I acquired good taste over the weekend. And it didn't cost me an arm and a leg.”—Washington Post[/b], 6 November, page B/1>

<1992 “How to use colour and smarten up the kitchen—hopefully all without spending an arm and a leg.”—World of Interiors, July, page 14/3>

<2000 “We agreed we'd have to take a taxi back. Probably cost an arm and a leg, but we weren't exactly awash with options.”—Danny Boy by J. Goodwin, vi. page 124>

<2003 “The low-fare carriers like JetBlue [[airline]] came on and said we're still going to do it without charging an arm and a leg.”—Boston Globe, 15 June>

<2006 “She lost half the shingles on her roof last year, she said, and was still searching for a contractor ‘who isn’t charging an arm and a leg.’”— New York Times, 30 August>

<2009 “The clog in the machine is young bank managers who are not prepared to look at a Government scheme and are asking for an arm and a leg in terms of security. They like to push their own schemes instead.”—Daily Mail (London), 13 March>
(quotes from archived sources)

Ken G – April 4, 2009