Q From Carroll Phillips: I was in a deli recently when the girl behind the counter dropped something between the cabinets. There was an officer waiting on line and she said: ‘Do you think the long arm of the law can get this out for me?’ This has me wondering! Do you know the origin of the phrase?
A These days it’s a dreadfully overworked cliché by which to describe the local police force, one found in every English-speaking country; it’s often intentionally humorous, but sometimes otherwise:
The man was in a 55-mph zone and didn’t have a motorcycle operator’s license, and the long arm of the law was overhead in a Washington State Patrol airplane.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 28 June 2008. A very long arm indeed!
It seems to have appeared in the early nineteenth century. The earliest instance I know of is this:
A fellow-student prevailing on him to become security for the payment of a tailor’s bill, he was soon obliged, in consequence of his inability to keep the engagement, to leave Edinburgh precipitately. But the tailor pursued him in his retreat with the long arm of the law; he was arrested in Sunderland, and conducted back to the college by bailiffs.
The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey, by George Lewis Smyth, 1826.
The first recorded American use is this one, which you will note even then was intended humorously:
‘Taking a drop too much.’ — A Mr Neville, of western New York, has married a Miss Amanda Drop, while having another wife. The long arm of the law dropped down on him, and walked him off to prison for bigamy.
Milwaukie Commercial Herald, Wisconsin, 8 July 1844. The newspaper’s title is correct: it’s using an old spelling of Milwaukee.
In the same period there was also make a long arm, to reach out to a great distance; later in the century came the long arm of coincidence. Our phrase clearly belongs with these, with all of them being based on long arm, a phrase that often appeared by itself and which meant the extent of one’s reach. Another version was strong arm of the law, which is rather older than any of the others:
By the Constitution of England, the king can do no wrong: but heaven forbid that the Statesman who, under the sanction of any Monarch whatever, proves a traitor to his country, should escape the strong arm of the law, which has at all times the authority to drag forth and bring him to condign punishment.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Aug. 1791.
So far as I can tell, strong arm of the law was used more widely in the US than the UK during the nineteenth century and always with serious intent (at least in the examples I’ve looked at). It, too, seems to have become a journalistic cliché. Might it be that long arm of the law was created as an alternative based on the near rhyme in its first word?
Both versions appear together here:
The gamblers ... pursued their course with varying success, until the failure of a spirited enterprise in the way of their profession, dispersed them in various directions, and caused their career to receive a sudden check from the long and strong arm of the law.
The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens, 1841. Dickens reused the phrase in Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1847.
This amalgamated form, though less popular than the others, was used for a while during the nineteenth century. It has since died out, but strong arm of the law and long arm of the law both survive.