~ Or: Some things just don’t want to be touched

The expression “wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole” has always been a fascinating one to me.  Outside of the fact that it will never apply to me – my Warsaw-esque lineage in addition to being only roughly 5’9″ – it’s one of those idioms that, at first blush, I cannot for the life of me figure out what it could have anything to do with.

Short power-line carriers?  A caber toss gone hilariously wrong?  A very generous game of limbo for Andre the Giant?

And why is it ten feet?  Why not eight?  Why not five or six depending on the average height of earth humans of that era?  We measure things based on someone’s FOOT, why not then the height of the person possessed of that same foot?

And furthermore, why would we want to touch something a stick of that length?  Under what circumstances would we actually feel the compelling need to want to touch something with a pole measuring ten feet in distance?

No clue whatsoever!

So!  To The Google we go.  I have absolutely no preconceived notions of where this rabbit hole is going to go and hopefully there will be an æffirmative answer to the entire thing instead of a more ambiguous non-answer based on the sands of time not leaving clear pathways to the distant past…

Or at the very least be somewhat entertaining!

Here we go!

The Roman Decempeda – The Literal Ten Foot Pole

Going all the way back to 1st century BC, we are able to find reference for something that certainly smells like it might have something to do with the origin of our ten foot pole.  Of course it’s not called a ten foot pole per se, given that the Romans had their own thing going where language was concerned.  In spite of the fact that they were super flowery in language compared to the technical accuracy of their Greek brethren (and sistren), there were moments where they were able to leverage the words at their disposal for some means of accuracy.  The following is an example of this accuracy:

It was usually of square section capped at both ends by a metal shoe, and painted in alternating colours. Together with the groma and Dioptra the decempeda formed the basic kit for the Roman surveyors. The measuring rod is frequently found depicted in Roman art showing the surveyors at work. Wikipedia

Decem for ten, and pedes for feet.  Seems logical in a sense, right?  That word, which eventually became the basis for the English word “perch” (from “pertica” originally), was the foundation for some form of accurate measurement.

What throws a huge wrench into those works is the fact that the perch evolved into fifteen feet of measurement as opposed to the original ten.  By 1607, that same term was used to reference a rod that was measured 16.5 feet in length.

It’s almost like ……. our history is replete with all manner of arbitrary decision-making where virtually anything is concerned.

Whoda thunk!

Units of measurement with the same name were free game and could vary widely depending on who needed what and when.

But at the very least, we have some kind of old reference for the concept of a measuring device that could be considered to be ten feet in length.  As a rod or a pole, the precedent of a ten foot pole has been established as being something that was used at some point during the history of time.


Tongs of Fun

If you’re anything like me and you hear the word “tongs” your first thought is as it relates to cooking things.  Or barbecuing things.  Potentially wicked flashbacks to the food-handling device of choice at the downtown Bellevue KFC.  Which no longer exists, a fact that I am moderately ambivalent about.

But no, we have to go back a bit further to the idea that tongs were the tool of trade for thems wot forge smithy things.  Tongs being the implements that a blacksmith would use in order to make certain that the object that they were practicing smithery upon wouldn’t actually, I dunno, melt the flesh from their hands while being piping hot.  Use of tongs in expressive language to describe not wanting to handle unsavory things has some degree of history.  Below are a few examples:

  • “For without a payre of tongs no man will touch her”. 1640, Wit Restor’d, and Wits Recreations
  • “I was so ragged and dirty that you wouldn’t have touched me with a pair of tongs.” 1854 Dickens, Hard Times
  • Aw wouldno’ touch him wi’ a pair of tungs, sir!1901 Lancashire sayings

Those examples represent the use of a practical tool to keep something “unsavory” held at arm’s length.  You know, like the “ew, gross” kind of unsavory.

“But George,” you might be asking, “what on earth do tongs have to do with rods and staves and the ten foot pole?”

Just hang in there with me.  We’re getting there.


Ten Foot Pole -Vaulting Through History

We’re going to take a bit of a jump through time here.  From the 1st century BC of the Roman Empire all the way to the 1600s and beyond.

It begs the question: were things measured between 100 BC and 1600 AD?  The answer being “uhh, I assume so?  Koz like, you know.”

Don’t you just love my scientific analyses?


We’ve established the concept of the measuring device with a Roman word.  We also have the use of a term that keeps something at arm’s length.

We’re getting there!

Examples of common ten foot pole usage

The year 1729 brings us a reference that discusses the use of a ten foot pole in a fashion that, at least to me, makes it look commonplace.  I’m going to paste that reference here for your entertainment now:

To effect the same [gauging a means of conveying water over a distance of 1,000 yards] by the Water or Spirit-Level, you are to stand at the Spring-head, and having turn’d your instrument on the hanging Level, or, in other plainer Words, on the Hang of the Hill where the Water is to pass, let your Assistant set forwards with a ten Foot Pole or Rod in his Hand, and holding his Hand at about four or five Foot high, and let him move up and down the Hill till the Level exactly strikes the Assistant’s Hand ; and if you can carry it strait, let this be seventy, eighty, ninety, or 100 Yards, more or less, allowing the Quarter of an Inch to a Yard Fall, as is before specify’d, which suppose to be eighty Yards, you are to allow ten Inches lower to your Gauge-Stake, and bone in new Pins or Stakes at every fifteen Foot asunder ; from which Gauge you are to dig your Cut three Foot deep to lay your Pipes in ; or if it be a bank’d River or Sewer, you are to throw your Stuff in all Sideling Ground to the lowest Side, letting this Stake be in the Middle of your Cut, be it either of fifteen or twenty Foot, either of which are sufficient in Works of this Kind.

If …. that makes any sense to you, please kindly email me and let me know.  At the very least, let me know the next time you are to throw your stuff in all sideling ground to the lowest side.  Because that sounds complicated.  Potentially painful.  And completely bereft of any necessary antihistamines.

William Byrd in documenting border country between Virginia and North Carolina noted in 1738 that the ground was so “moist” that you could insert a ten foot pole up to the head without exerting any discernible effort.

1821 has a reference to an individual who attempted to use a ten foot pole to extend out and reach a child in water who slipped to the current.

American Agriculturist in 1890 has instructions for the easy fashioning of ones own ten foot pole.

Construction plans made use of such devices, as noted here:

He accordingly measures off eight feet from the end of one sill, and there makes a mark; he then measures off six feet on the sill lying at right angles with the first, and makes another mark; he then lays on his ten foot pole… — The Farmers’ Cabinet, and American Herd-book, 1840.

The ten foot pole is a very firmly established unit of measurement by the time we get to searchable documents.  Which is good, because this entry would probably be far too (mercifully) short otherwise.

Sooooooooooooooo let’s go onto the ACTUAL IDIOM NOW! YAY!


Wanna go back with me to 1832?  Of course you don’t.  That’s before the heyday of the Oregon Trail emigration frenzy and we already know how likely you are to lose an ox or die of dysentery without good leadership.  And I’m soft.  As an android’s bottom.

Instead, let’s just read things from that era!

From the Indiana Palladium, Volume 8, Number 36,Lawrenceburg, Dearborn County, 22 September 1832 we have this reference:

How true is the saying that “a drowning man will catch at straws.” Here we see men who a short time since would not have touched Webb, with a ten foot pole, welcoming him to their ranks, and declaring their belief that on him depends the result of the next Presidential election. Poor fellows! they calculate without their host this time.

So in case you were wondering if politicians were as obnoxious and wishy-washy just under two hundred years ago, there’s your proof.  Also, ya’ll should really hit that link and read the -rest- of what’s written there.  They don’t pull any punches!

Since we haven’t had enough political examples, here’s another one from The North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), 12 June 1839

Last year, when running for the Legislature, the “whigs” would not touch [Henry] Clay with a ten foot pole ; but many now declare they will not vote for any one that is opposed to Clay.

Another quote example: “People who do not like reading too many words would not touch this blog with a ten foot pole.”

Keeping my keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat at a distance is probably good for the sanity.  But just in case you’re still here with me, let’s move on.

Where do Barge Poles fit in all this ten foot pole nonsense?

It seems as though a tandem phrase was having its own evolution in other parts of the world.  The “barge pole” is a term that I was today-years-old when I first heard and it seems to fit the bill for the topic at hand.  A barge pole itself is a very long pole – varying in length from 8 to 18 feet – used to propel the mass of, well, barges.

If you’d like to take a peek at Mostly Fools: A Romance of Civilization as published in 1886, you will read the following:

As for me I wouldn’t touch one of ’em, much less yours—not if he were the Pope of Rome—not with the end of a barge pole—not if I were paid for it, there now; and I wish I’d never been born to be slave to such a brute beast, I do—booooh! ”

I’m including that section in here for a small handful of reasons:

  • It shows that poles of varying lengths are used as idioms in their own right, not exclusive to those of the ten foot length
  • The expression has been around for at least twelve moons
  • The use of “end of a” prior to the barge pole is significant

Let’s peek at the last one for a moment.

The reason that last bit really hits me is because of its very specific usage.  Yes, in the use of the ten foot pole idiom, there is an assumption of sorts regarding how this would be used.  The assumption is that the ten foot pole is utilized in a fashion that would keep something distasteful away.  I think we all got that.

What I LOVE about adding “the end of” is how it is very specific.  It reminds me of a boss I had once who had an expression that I shamelessly stole from her.  The family friendly version being:

Most of you have heard the “they can kiss my butt” phrase as some form or rejectionary statement.  My old boss?  Oh no.  Her version was “they can kiss my entire butt.”

Thus my appreciation of the addition of “the end of a” before the barge pole.  Which could be applied just as easily to the ten foot pole.  Just that little icing on the cake that really clinches the deal.

Shutting This One Down

This whole thing is probably stuff you, the reader, already know.  The concept of the ten foot pole idiom is obviously meant to denote something that we would not want to be anywhere near.  The ten foot pole was a standardized unit of static measurement throughout the centuries up until the invention of the metal tape measure in the 1800s, at which point it was less useful.  Maybe not entirely obsolete but most assuredly less common.  Especially when there was something you could keep in your pocket that would do the job!

But we now know the assumed origin of the effete nature of our ten foot pole idiom.  The dramatic metaphorical use of a very long measuring device to describe something best kept even further away than arm’s length tracks with our nature to be all kinds of extra.

And there we have it!  My extra self now releases you back to the wild of your day to accomplish all the things.  Or at the very least, take comfort knowing that there’s probably a tape measure near by so that you can measure EXACTLY how far away you want to keep me in all your glorious arbitrary selection.

Until next week!

(that’s further out than a ten foot pole, i hope!)

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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