The Grammarphobia Blog

The “Adam” family

Q: I read your recent blog post about “don’t know X from Y” and immediately thought of “don’t know so-and-so from Adam.” Where did that one come from?

A: The various sayings about not knowing someone from Adam refer to the biblical Adam, and mean the someone mentioned isn’t recognized.

The expression, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first appeared in print in the trial court proceedings of the London Sessions (1784): “Some man stopped me, I do not know him from Adam.”

Charles Dickens also used the expression, in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840): “He called to see my Governor this morning … and beyond that I don’t know him from Adam.”

Adam makes appearances in other, lesser-known phrases as well, including “as old as Adam,” which means very old, and “since Adam was a boy,” meaning a long time ago. Here are some OED citations:

“As great races … as have ever been run since Adam was a yearling” (1840, from a New York sporting weekly, The Spirit of the Times). 

Though old as Adam, love is still the theme that interests all hearts in all countries” (1867, from an Australian publication).

“You hunt up that pen you’ve had since Adam was a boy” (1918, from one of Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy novels).

But Adam wasn’t supposed to appear in the expression “up and at  ’em.” We wrote about that one in a recent blog entry.

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