May 21, 2013

What does it mean to say that one case is a "far cry" from another?

Here's the unanimous opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Metrish v. Lancaster, released yesterday, which dealt with a principle of due process that I won't try to summarize. (There's a summary here, at SCOTUSblog.) I only want to talk about the expression "a far cry," used in Metrish to say something lawyers and judges often have reason to say: one thing is very different from another.
[W]e consider first two of this Court’s key decisions: Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U. S. 347 (1964), and Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U. S. 451 (2001)...

This case is a far cry from Bouie, where, unlike Rogers, the Court held that the retroactive application of a judicial decision violated due process....
This made me curious about the expression "a far cry." This is one of these expressions that we use because it has a metaphorical feeling, even though we don't think too concretely about what the metaphor is. (This is what George Orwell called a "dying metaphor" in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language.") What is the image in "far cry"? I picture Lancaster, Bouie, and Rogers standing on hilltops in a landscape and see Lancaster — it's Burt Lancaster, by the way — hollering over to Rogers and Bouie on their respective hilltops, and Rogers can easily hear him but Bouie can barely hear him. That's a colorful alternative to saying Lancaster is much closer to Rogers than to Bouie.

Let's whip out the out the old (and unlinkable) Oxford English Dictionary:
within cry of: within calling distance. a far cry  : a long way, a very long distance.

1632   W. Lithgow Totall Disc. Trav. (1682) ix. 396   Villages and Houses..each one was within cry of another.
1819   Scott Legend of Montrose iv, in Tales of my Landlord 3rd Ser. IV. 72   One of the Campbells replied, ‘It is a far cry to Lochow’; a proverbial expression of the tribe, meaning that their ancient hereditary domains lay beyond the reach of an invading enemy.
1850   Tait's Edinb. Mag. Feb. 75/1   In those days, it was a ‘far cry’ from Orkney to Holyrood; nevertheless the ‘cry’ at length penetrated the royal ear.
1885   Athenæum 18 Apr. 498/3   It is a far cry from the ascidian to bookbinding and blue china, yet it is a cry that can be achieved by Mr. Lang.
The ascidian — I had to look it up — is a sea squirt, and it's not yelling out to bookbinding and blue china, so this metaphor has been dying since at least 1885.

20 comments:

Jeff Teal said...

A'int English one verra complisicated language.

rhhardin said...

I'd say they're within hailing distance.

Mitch H. said...

Bah. Orwell is a crap oracle when it comes to practical matters of usage, and I'm tired of being held to his pinched and mean measure. His war on metaphor reminds me of Lewis & Tolkien's aphorism about the shared ambitions of jailers and literary critics.

I only wish Orwell had no poetry in him, because what he did write was cynical and ugly.

mccullough said...

I prefer "this case is three steps over the edge of the pool from Bouie."

Lauderdale Vet said...

You can't even look it up on phrases.org.uk without someone getting a dig in on G.W.B.

DADvocate said...

Ann, you need to get some of these historical dictionaries of American slang by John Lighter. He ws a friend of a friend of mine back in the 1980s. He's literally put decades of work into words, sayings, etc. Right up your alley and you can purchase the books through your portal.

traditionalguy said...

Yodels done in a sing song code is a far cry walking all of the way over to the adjoining mountain top.

Breathing at the right time is a needed skill of singing a far cry off.

Michael said...

I have the hardbound OED, the one with two volumes and print so small a magnifying glass came with it. Would be much handier to have the electronic edition but 215GBP per year is a little steep. I note on Amazon that the two volume edition is only $155: a great bargain, probably what I paid in the early 80s.

ricpic said...

I don't get why a far cry is a dying metaphor. It's not as though a far cry is unused nowadays. And if the meaning of dying metaphor is that most users don't know the etymology, well then nine out of ten metaphors are likely dying.

edutcher said...

As Edwin Newman might ask, what, exactly, is a near cry?

rhhardin said...

The mysterious idiom is on the sly.

Probably it's from fox farms.

Richard Dolan said...

It's always interesting to see what interests others. "A far cry" has an old-fashioned sound (almost wrote "ring to it"), the sort of thing a lazy writer pulls out of the grab-bag when time is short and a deadline is looming. (Oops, there's another old phrase that lawyers often use but defies logic -- deadlines don't really 'loom', as if emerging from some miasmic mental fog.)

There is some fun in stopping to look at worn-out turns of phrase, to pause (briefly) and ask what was their attraction when they were still fresh that resulted in the overuse that turned them into dull things they are today.

Richard Dolan said...
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traditionalguy said...

A near cry is a good leader's trick of talking very softly to draw focused attention from a small audience.

That works. But loud Cries work better for larger audiences.

And sing song, near chant like, cries are the most powerfull of all.

Carl said...

A "near cry" is "within shouting distance," of course. Used plenty often.

I believe "cry" had a more formalistic meaning before the age of electronic communications: it meant an alarm or piece of important news, e.g. the "cry" in a "hue and cry" that gets raised to give chase to a criminal on the loose, or the "town crier" who might spread news.

No doubt originally it was literally a "cry" -- meaning a shout or hoot -- but even in the ages of bells or messengers on horses, I imagine it kept the general meaning of "within immediate communication distance," with the means of communication evolving slowly.

It's a curious thing that our modern lives are slowly losing touch with an essential fact of the lives of our ancestors, which is that news took time to travel, and this had real impact on their lives. It meant each life had a sort of "event horizon" at some "distance" -- distance being some combination of actual physical distance, time, the circle of your acquaintaince, your own importance and involvement, etc., and that nasty (or good) things -- Cossacks, hurricanes, plague, immigrants with lots of cash or no cash but lots of guns, new medicines, news of a stock market crash or a grandchild's birth -- could abruptly appear on that horizon and travel in to affect you.

It was clearly a significant source of uncertainty, anxiety, and also hope. People had to develop social mythology and personal attitudes to cope with it, and exploit it where possible. ("Tomorrow is only a day away!")

We are left these days with only the future as the "event horizon" in our lives. What's interesting about that is that an "event horizon" that is in part physical distance and connection can be expanded by a greater and more facile communication with others -- being more social. But that doesn't do much for expanding the event horizon the future represents. Perhaps that has unfortunate effects on our social behaviour.

Lem said...

In those days, it was a ‘far cry’ from the Watergate complex to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave; nevertheless the ‘cry’ at length penetrated the peoples ear.

Drew W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drew W said...

Eric Dolphy, whose saxophone and clarinet style featured quite a few cries and shrieks, called one of his albums Far Cry.

Chip Ahoy said...

A far cry is the distance a sheepdog will respond to a whistle. That distance sticks out in the mind because those dogs react immediately. That's what is so amazing about them. You go "tweet" and BLAM the dog responds. In fact, they're so fast they respond before you can finish the tweet so it comes out, "Twe"BLAM"et"

So now the dog is far away but you can still see him and the sheep so you blow the whistle and it goes "tweet" pause pause pause pause BLAM and you go to yourself, "Damn, that's a far cry."

Leit Bart said...

Interesting. Do a post on "horn books," too. Everyone was buying them during my first year but no one could tell me why they were called horn books -- not even Westlaw, which I personally phoned. Origin was interesting -- but maybe only to me because I'm a noid.