The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

Distances we keep, and the ones we bridge

A look at three idioms for different kinds of ‘distance’ – literal and figurative.

South Carolina guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore (1) attempts a shot defended by Florida guard Dyandria Anderson (11) and Florida forward Haley Lorenzen (44) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Gainesville, Fla. on Jan. 7, 2017.
Ron Irby/AP
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Maybe it was just a desire for some counterprogramming to my news browsing, but I found myself musing recently about three idioms for distance, literal and figurative.

First, striking distance: “a distance from which something can be easily reached or attained,” according to Merriam-Webster, which dates the phrase to 1751. 

Thus the Dow Jones industrial average has been “within striking distance” of the 20000 mark. Sports teams are often said to be within “striking distance” of this or that victory. At this time of year, a Google News search of “striking distance” brings up lots of basketball images. 

Hailing distance is “the distance within which it is possible to hear someone who is calling out,” according to Merriam-Webster. 

M-W gives no first-use information, but the Oxford English Dictionary cites “Two Years Before the Mast” (1840), in which Richard Henry Dana wrote, “They passed to leeward of us, and out of hailing distance.”

Today, hailing distance may be simply a less aggressive striking distance. See reference to basketball photos, above. 

The usage of both idioms has been on a gentle downward slope since about 1940, albeit with a modest rise since 2000, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer

As I noodled, a third “distance” came to thought. Hmm, isn’t whistling distance a recognized idiom? “Isn’t that a thing?” as some would put it. (Indeed, “Isn’t that a thing?” is well on its way to becoming a recognized idiom itself.) 

Yes and yes. It can be simply another synonym for “almost there,” as in this cautiously worded newspaper editorial from July 1972: “[T]here are suggestions that a boom is almost within whistling distance.”

But of these three “distances,” whistling distance may be the one most closely tied to its concrete meaning: the distance across which the sound of someone’s whistling can be heard. A well-trained horse, for instance, will remain “within whistling distance.”

A 1978 book called “Children and the Environment,” edited by Irwin Altman, touched on, among other things, the “range” of children and their play. It had this tidbit from research on rural kids: “[T]he whistling call of fathers was used as a signal for children to come home, who irrespective of sex were allowed to play ‘within whistling distance.’ ”

In his 1996 book, “The Making of a Country Lawyer: An Autobiography,” Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence had this to say about his own father’s whistling calls to his family in the outdoors: “When he was separated from my mother as they walked through the timber, they would keep in touch with each other by an occasional soft, low whistle that, if put to words, sounded like ‘Sweetheart.’ ‘Sweetheart,’ my mother, forever afraid of being lost, would whistle back. Soon my father could be heard whistling, low and sweet, ‘Sweetheart,’ and if I was with my mother I knew we were not lost. We would never be lost, not if Daddy was within whistling distance.”

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