“Give An Inch, Take A Mile” is Idiomatic

By Larry Teren


“Give an inch and take a mile” is one of those common phrases found in a dictionary of idioms. It very well expresses the disparity found in situations where someone is getting taken advantage of (usually me). One must speak it in frustration sprinkled with a dash of sarcasm.


For example-you can pretty much tell what takes up much of my mind- let’s say you are driving your car on a major road and are behind three others as the light turns red. As the drivers ahead of you quickly slow down and put on the brakes, so do you. There is a hamburger drive-thru joint at that corner and while you have been sitting there for thirty seconds wondering when the cross light is going to warn the intersecting traffic with a yellow signal, all of a sudden a car inches up to the exit area of the drive-thru. The driver lets his foot off the brake gently so he can move his car off the driveway closer to the street. This is universal way of letting the car that is on the street know that when the light turns green, the car yearning to get out of the drive-thru is going to attempt a mad dash into traffic. No harm, no foul- maybe. Traffic in our direction wasn’t moving anyway.  


Except, in my case, being in the car behind the good Samaritan who allows the driveway guy onto the road, I’m busting a gut. All of a sudden, I see an armada of two or three more cars hankering to tailgate the guy coming out of the drive-thru and squeak into traffic. The driver ahead of me happens to be too nice a guy and he is willing to let everyone else who wants out of the hamburger joint to get in their cars, rev up the engines, and move out into traffic. And then, he decides not to move because the light has now turned yellow again and doesn’t want to get a ticket. In the meantime, I’m now the fourth car from the stoplight.


Naturally, if the shoe were on the other foot and it was I trying to get into traffic from a shopping strip parking lot, the fellow in the third car waiting at the light would give me a dirty look and dare me to get within two feet of his mobile sheet metal. And then I’d be honking the horn and turn my head and see that there was a police squad car just passing by in the other direction who luckily did not notice I was the guy blasting away the serenity of outdoors.


Time out:

Inch derives from something Latin that means ‘one-twelfth’. Most common people long ago who didn’t own a ruler used the size of a thumb to roughly gauge an inch. I guess they figured you could stack twelve thumbs and it would equal the length of their foot. Mile also has a Latin origin that refers to the Roman word for one thousand. So what we have here is a phrase born out of a situation where one person gives a twelfth of kindness and the recipient forces an exaggeration one thousand times over.

Okay, time-in.


For those of you who don’t drive or maybe don’t care if you let six cars into traffic ahead of you because you are not in a hurry to go anywhere, let me present another example of kindness being sullied.


You are standing in the checkout lane with a shopping cart full of twenty-five or so items. You’ve just about finished putting the last item on the moving counter but are waiting for the person ahead of you to figure out how to slide their credit card on that ubiquitous device and then remember to use the stylus pen to sign the screen. Suddenly, a short of breath person appears behind you holding two items in his hands with a meek smile and a puppy dog look on his face. Silently, he is sending you a telepathic message to please let him jump ahead of you because he only has two items and his wife and baby are sitting in the car.


Being the nice guy that you are, you gesture with your hand to let him step ahead and take care of his quick purchase. He now gives you a full smile and says, “thanks!”. Of course, the second item the checkout lady tries to scan returns a bad beep. She does it again and still no satisfaction. A third attempt is just as futile. She picks up the phone sitting next to the register and announces to the Maytag repairman guarding Jack Benny’s vault, “price check on register six.” The unseen messenger slowly gets up in the employee lounge trying to remember if he is using his cane or walker today while he slowly makes his way to register six. Five minutes later he shows up to take the item with the bad pricing back to whence it came and look for a clue of a price label on the shelf.


I ask the clerk why she can’t void the first item and put it aside so she can do mine where I am confident all items have good bar codes. The guy I was nice to looks at me with a “whom do you think you are, selfish bastard?” glare. The clerk stares at me as if I am a trouble maker and says indignantly, “I don’t void sales. Just you wait.” (Who am I, Henry Higgins?)


Ten minutes later as I am still standing behind the recipient of my benevolence as we both await the completion of the sale. Did the messenger get in a car and drive to the manufacturer of the product to find out what he charges and then do his own profit markup to come up with a price? All the while, I am promising to never ever be nice again.





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