Also: Hold at arm’s lenghth
Keep within arm’s length
Meaning of ‘At Arm’s Length’
To keep someone or something at arm’s length is to maintain an emotional distance as to avoid familiarity or intimacy; to dissociate yourself from someone or something and to avoid coming into close contact. A variant is to hold at arm’s length.
This expression is meant to refer to people or things that cannot be completely avoided in the physical sense, but are to be avoided in the emotional sense. In other words, to keep someone at arm’s length is to avoid becoming too friendly or familiar. In terms of things, it is to avoid association or the appearance of familiarity or knowledge.
The related variant keep someone within arm’s length is almost the opposite: To keep someone/something within arm’s reach is to keep them close, usually physically but possibly in an emotional sense.
The idiom is most often used with the verb keep but can be used in other ways.
“Her old boyfriend was abusive. Now she keeps him at arm’s length.”
“The mayor preferred all hint of scandal to be safely at arm’s length.”
“He was a fair boss, but he kept his employees at arm’s length and avoided casual banter.”
“As much as the candidate professed to support gay rights, he kept the gay community at arm’s length.”
This idiom alludes to keeping someone or something away from you at a distance equal to the length of your arm, calling on the image of an arm held out and away from the body, so as to physically stop someone from getting too close. During the 1600’s, the idiom started out as keep at arm’s end but by the 1700’s the present variant was in use.
Shakespeare used an early version of the idiom in the play As You Like It, believed to have been written in 1599:
“Thy conceit is nearer death than thy powers. For my sake, be comfortable: hold death awhile at arm’s end.”
According to Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” (1755) the phrase originated from boxing “in which the weaker man may overcome the stronger, if he can keep him from closing.” Whether or not this association with boxing is true, Johnson did indicate that “arm’s length” was used in the same sense, and, in addition to Shakespeare’s use given above, included the following bolded example from “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sydney (1590):
“This man called Pamphilus, in birth I must confess is noble, but what is that to him, if it shall be a stain to his dead ancestors to have left such an off-spring, in shape as you see, not uncomely, indeed the fit mask of his disguised falsehood, in conversation wittily pleasant, and pleasantly gamesome ; his eyes full of merry simplicity, his words, of hearty companionableness : and such an one, whose head one would not think so stayed as to think mischievously ; delighted in all such things, which by imparting the delight to others, makes the user thereof welcome, as, music, dancing, hunting, feasting, riding, and such like. And to conclude, such a one, as who can keep him at arms end, need never wish a better companion. But under these qualities lies such a poisonous adder as I will tell you. For by those gifts of nature and fortune, being in all places acceptable, he creeps, nay, to say, truly, he flies so into the favour of poor silly women, that I would be too much ashamed to confess, if I had not revenge in my hand as well as shame in ‘my cheeks.”
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