Why do we say "I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole"?

Well-Known Expressions

I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole

Meaning:

I wouldn't want to be near or associated with that person. The expression can also be used to refer to a thing or event.

Background:

Phrases.org.uk finds an early use of this expression in an 1843 edition of The Covenant and Official Magazine of the Grand Lodge of the United States, edited by James L Ridgely: "That […] aristocracy of our country... would not condescend to touch a poor man with a ten foot pole."

The earliest reference to the related expression, "wouldn't touch with a barge-pole" is found 50 years later in an 1893 entry of Lady Monkswell's diary: "It will be a long while before any political party touches Home Rule again with the end of a barge pole."

(Lady Monkswell, wife of Robert Collier, 2nd Baron Monkswell, is one of the best known diariest of the Victorian era. As the wife of a liberal politician she was acquainted with, and referenced in her diaries, many luminaries of the day including Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley and Winston Churchill.)

Many sources presume that a ten-foot pole is simply another way to describe a barge pole (used by bargemen to fend off from banks, wharves or other boats), but alternate theories exist. One is that it refers to the 10-foot poles used by utility workers to de-energize high voltage utility equipment before performing maintenance. Another is that it originates in a burial practice in New Orleans in which the the body is placed in a casket in an above ground tomb for exactly a year and a day, then the tomb is opened and the casket removed. The body is wrapped in a sheet and pushed to the back of the tomb with a ten-foot pole until it falls off the back of the shelf to the bottom. In the New Orleans climate, bodies decompose quickly allowing many people to be interred in the same tomb.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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