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The meaning and origin of the expression: Wouldn't touch with a barge-pole

Wouldn't touch with a barge-pole

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Wouldn't touch with a barge-pole'?

Said of something or someone so unappealing that one wouldn't want to go anywhere near.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Wouldn't touch with a barge-pole'?

There are various version of 'I wouldn't touch ... with a ... pole' - the most commonly used object being either a barge-pole or a ten-foot pole.

Wouldn't touch with a barge-poleBarge-poles are the long wooden poles used to push barges along when the usual power source wasn't suitable - though narrow tunnels for instance, or if they were stuck. The term was first recorded in Edward Farmer's Scrap book, being a selection of poems, songs, scraps, etc., 1846:

Barge-pole - A large stick or thick bough. Also generally used for any large piece of wood.

Barges are now less common in the UK, where the word was coined, and those that remain are usually powered by engines. Recreational punting still uses poles similar to barge-poles.

The earliest reference I can find to the figurative use of 'wouldn't touch with a barge-pole' is Lady Monkswell's Diary, 1893:

It will be a long while before any political party touches Home Rule again with the end of a barge pole.

The expression appears to derive from the earlier American phrase 'I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole'. This is recorded in the magazine of the U.S. Masonic community, The Official Magazine of the Grand Lodge of the United States, 1843, edited by James L Ridgely:

But that mushroom aristocracy of our country... who would not condescend to touch a poor man with a ten foot pole, were their extraction traced, in nine cases out of ten they were nurtured in the squalid huts of poverty.

Ten-foot poles were, in all likelihood, barge-poles by another name.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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