Q: I have always used “few and far between,” but now I hear people saying “far and few between.” Am I hallucinating?
A: No, you’re not hallucinating. “Few and far between” has been the usual wording since the expression showed up in writing in the 1600s. But “far and few between” has appeared occasionally since the 1800s, and more frequently in the last couple of decades.
A linguist would refer to “far and few between” as an example of word reversal, word exchange, word metathesis, or informally a malapropism (mixing up two similar-sounding words).
(We discussed such bloopers as malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns on the blog in 2011 as well as in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.)
The earliest example of “few and far between” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a letter written by Sir Ralph Verney on July 13, 1668: “Hedges are few and far between.” The letter is cited in Margaret M. Verney’s Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Civil War, published in 1899.
The OED doesn’t have any citations for “far and few between.” The earliest example we’ve seen is from Mieldenvold, the Student (1843), Frederick Sheldon’s sprawling poem about the travels and yearnings of a romantic German student:
“The houses too, are ‘far and few between’; / Both gentle, simple, — all are but the same. / A sense of dreariness pervades the scene.”
It’s unclear why Sheldon put the expression in quotation marks. It appeared without quotes in a book review two years later:
“The ‘originals’ among the plates were so far and few between, that it became almost a labour to find one out.” (From the British and Foreign Medical Review, London, July-October 1845. The passage refers to illustrations in a book about surgery.)
Until recently, “far and few between” was barely a blip on the lexical radar, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books published up to 2008. Since then, there’s been a noticeable increase in the usage, but “few and far between” is still overwhelmingly more popular.
Here, for example, are search results from the News on the Web corpus, which tracks web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present: “few and far between” (8,931) versus “far and few between” (759).
We’ve had similar results from searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and in NewsBank, a database of newspapers, magazines, press releases, blogs, videos, broadcast transcripts, and government documents. A search of the British National Corpus didn’t find any examples of “far and few between.”
The linguist Arnold Zwicky has noted the increased use of “far and few between” and has offered an explanation for the word reversal. In a Feb. 5, 2016, post on his blog, he says the original expression is an idiom that’s “learned as a whole, probably without much appreciation of its parts.”
As a result, he writes, “when some of those parts are syntactically and phonologically very similar, as few and far are, and when in addition both truncated far and few and few and far occur, the way is clear for some speakers to try the non-conventional order of those parts; after all, we don’t expect idioms to make a lot of sense in their fine details, so why not?”
“All it would take is for some speakers to produce the other order, either as an inadvertent error or by misremembering … the details of the idiom, or by creatively varying the order, and these speakers can then serve as the focus for the spread of far and few between,” he says. “Once this version spreads, we have a core of new speakers who just think that it’s the way the idiom works, or that it’s one of two equally acceptable versions of the idiom (since they’re probably hearing both). For them, far and few between is not some kind of error.”
In recent years, though, we’ve found that the use of “far and few between” has fallen. A NewsBank search indicates that “far and few between” peaked in 2011 with 289 examples, and had fallen by 2018 to 183 examples. The usage is still out there, as you’ve noticed, but sightings are fewer and farther between.
Finally, we wrote a post in 2014 that mentions the etymology of “few.” The original source is believed to be the Indo-European root pau-, denoting smallness of quantity or number, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
Although “few” is spelled with an “f” in English and other Germanic languages, Ayto notes, the “p” of pau- survives in French (peu), Spanish (poco), and Italian (poco). In fact, the Indo-European root can still be seen in the English words “paucity,” “pauper,” “poor,” and “poverty.”