Idiomatically, the English expression 'at arm's length' means something like 'within sight, but avoiding any form of contact'. It can be used either physically or metaphorically.

I'm trying hard to find a Latin expression for it, but I can neither trace any English translation from Latin that uses it, nor think of anything plausible that catches the idiom exactly.

Perhaps I'm just trying too hard. Can anyone help?

  • I'm much inclined to accept eminus, ('not to hand' or 'at a distance'), but it's somehow not quite complete, if you see what I mean. Since asking, I have found extra captum , extra ictu and ultra manu, each of which might be useful, though I'm still uncertain. I've also thought of using remotus in some way, but can't quite make it work any better than any of the alternatives. – Tom Cotton Jan 25 '18 at 19:38
  • If you're willing to forego the metaphor, the verb arceo means to keep at a distance, as when Horace says "Odi profanum vulgus et arceo" – Penelope Jan 26 '18 at 2:47
  • @Penelope Thank you. I'm trying to translate '. . we rested our glasses at arm's length upon the table' (from 'Three Men in a Boat'), and arceo looks adaptable to it. I think it would also suit the metaphor. Might you now convert it into an answer? – Tom Cotton Jan 26 '18 at 15:44
  • Done! Such a funny book, 'Three Men in a Boat'. Good luck with the translation. – Penelope Jan 27 '18 at 2:42
  • @Penelope Thank you. That's now a pretty complete survey. I'll mark it as accepted, I've actually settled for ultra manu posuimus in the immediate instance; it's almost at the end of the book, and now I have to revise the whole thing! – Tom Cotton Jan 29 '18 at 19:26

It seems to me that 'at arm's length' can be construed in two slightly different ways: 'to keep at a distance' (I want nothing to do with it) or 'to have within reach' (I may have need of it at some point). Below are suggestions for both interpretations.

The first suggestion is:

arcere – to prevent from approaching; to refuse to associate with; to keep off, out

per ministros agere et arcere hostem satis habebat

he was content to act through his subordinates and to keep the enemy at distance

Tacitus, Annals, 12.40

Odi profanum vulgus et arceo

I despise the common crowd and keep it at a distance

Horace, Odes, 3.1.1

However, I suspect your three men may be inclined to pick up those glasses again or, at the very least, are not averse to wining and dining on another occasion, so perhaps arcere is too final. My second suggestion, therefore, is:

promptus – to be at hand; to have ready, at one’s disposal or command; but also to be before the eyes thereby capturing the sense of something at a short distance but still within sight. Most often seen in the phrase in promptu (esse, habere, ponere, etc.) – within easy reach for use; or in full view; in a prominent position.

nam haec ipsa mihi erunt in promptu quae modo audivi

for I shall have the arguments I have just heard ready to hand

Cicero, De Finibus, 2.35

Ad salutem omnia parata sunt et in promptu

Everything conducive to our well-being is prepared and within our reach

Seneca the Younger, Epistles, 119

tabernacula aperta et omnia cara in promptu relicta; argentum quibusdam locis temere per vias velut obiectum ad praedam vidisse.

the tents were open and all kinds of valuables were left in full sight and ready for the taking; here and there he had seen silver carelessly flung down in the lanes, as if to tempt a pillager.

Livy, History of Rome, 22.42 - I like how this passage captures the sense of temptation when something is at arm's length.

Another, final suggestion which could maybe keep the 'arm' of 'arm's length' imagery is:

ad manum – close at hand, or as the OLD clarifies, “spatial proximity with additional idea of availability”. However, I have to concede that this more often than not could also simply mean "to hand", as in "in one's hand".

ubi ad manum venisset hostis, tum coortos tota vi gladiis rem gerere

when the enemy had come within reach, then they were to assail them with all their might, and settle the question with the sword

Livy, History of Rome, 2.30

haec arma habere ad manum

these are the weapons he needs to have within reach

Quintilian, The Orator’s Education, 12.5

incedere inter milites, habere ad manum centuriones

[the women] paraded among the soldiers, they had the centurions at their beck and call

Tacitus, Annals, 3.33


The word that comes first to mind is eminus:

(of fighting, striking, and sim.) At long range (and not in hand-to-hand combat). b (in non-military context) from a distance. [OLD]

This is, of course, the antonym of comminus, as in in Cicero, De senectute 19:

nec enim excursione nec saltu nec eminus hastis aut comminus gladiis uteretur, sed consilio ratione sententia.

For he [Scipio] would use neither sally, nor leap, nor spears from a distance, nor swords in hand-to-hand combat, but planning, reason, judgment.

Even though eminus would usually, I think, imply a somewhat greater distance than merely 'at arm's length,' it certainly covers the meaning 'within sight, but avoiding any form of contact.'

  • 4
    I'm not sure if you had this in mind when posting your answer because it's not explicitly stated but I wanted to just highlight that eminus comes from ex + manus and so might be quite a good match for the original metaphor 'at arm's length'. I only noticed this because I was researching idioms using manus myself (not with much luck though!) – Penelope Jan 25 '18 at 2:04

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