few and far in between

… caught on the radio as I was going to sleep several days ago. Didn’t record the source, but you can google up large numbers of this expanded version of the predicative idiom few and far between — and also a respectable number of the truncated version few and far ‘few and far between/apart/away’. The expanded version looks like it originated, eggcornishly, as an attempt to make more sense of the standard idiom (by incorporating the idiom in between in it), and the truncated version looks like a nonce truncation that might be spreading on its own.

The background: OED2 has few and far between under predicative uses of few, with the examples:

1668    R. Verney Let. cJuly in Verney Mem. (1899) IV. iii. 89   Hedges are few and far between.

1799    T. Campbell Pleasures of Hope ii. 375   What though my wingèd hours of bliss have been, Like angel-visits, few and far between?

1865    J. C. Wilcocks Sea Fisherman (1875) 163   The weed becomes very troublesome, and the fish consequently few and far between.

1965    Listener 20 May 759/3   Repair garages which are equally few and far between.

The sense is ‘occurring at wide intervals, scarce’.

Predicative few is reasonably common, and entirely standard (indeed, a bit on the formal side). Predicative far, standing alone, is rare, however; far apart, far from, and far away [from some reference point] are common enough, but predicative far between is not, though it would probably be understood. So predicative few and far between counts as an idiom — not easily decomposable.

[It does have alliteration on its side. So it was suited, in the order far and few (required by the rhyme scheme), in the refrain of Edward Lear’s comic verse “The Jumblies”:

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

(The rhyme scheme is ABAB, and the meter is tetrameter — the choice for most folk, pop, and comic verse in English — with end-accented feet, tending towards iambic, but with enough freedom to be interesting. It’s been set to music many times.)

(Totally personal digression. Ages ago, when I lived in Cambridge MA, my wife and I went to a Halloween party as Jumblies, because we were tickled by Edward Lear’s verse. We wore blue rubber gloves, Rubbermaid’s best, applied stage makeup tinted bright green to our faces, and carried large sieves. Absolutely no one got it, so we spent the evening chanting the verse above.)]

Enough of nonsense. A few hits for truncated few and far:

I’m always looking for great places to find different styles. They are few and far. (link)

Like finding gems in a coal mine, they are few and far, but they are gems after all…. (link)

Like other nonce truncations (the whole nine, above and beyond, etc.), these examples cry out to have the missing material supplied.

Then a small sampling from the cites for few and far in between:

Real friends are few and far in between? (link)

Beneficial health outcomes are few and far in between. While medical necessity for circumcision most certainly does exist, it’s a very uncommon phenomenon. (link)

When islands are few and far in between (link)

From an employee’s perspective, management often conducts itself in ways that make no sense. When the economy is slow, jobs are few and far in between or people are fearful, staff will tolerate management behaviors and policies that are nonsensical (in their eyes) or they judge are harmful. (link)

I note that many people on the net have worried about which version of the idiom — few and far between or few and far in between — is correct.

One Response to “few and far in between”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Coren on Google+:

    I’ve also heard the occasional “far and few between” (generally from sportscasters, who are prone to this sort of thing), which when examined seems nonsensical. I doubt these people were influenced by Edward Lear. (I like to think that I would have recognized those costumes.)

    Far and few between could occur as a simple transposition error in speech — but there are enough examples in writing to suggest that some people have reshaped the idiom.

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