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Within a gnat’s ...

Q From Doug Dew: A friend of mine uses a colourful phrase: within a gnat’s ..., meaning very close-fitting. Any ideas on the origin of this term?

A Various phrases of the type have been known in the US for at least 160 years to indicate something very small. The first example I found is cited by John Lighter in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang from 1840: gnat’s heel, a very small amount. Others are gnat’s eyebrow, gnat’s ass (“Fine enough to split the hairs on a gnat’s ass”), and fit to a gnat’s heel, for something that fits or suits perfectly. There’s also the English gnat’s piss for any weak and unsatisfying drink. Others exist, some even more crude.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Dec. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 December 2000.