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ell, n.1

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ɛl/ , U.S. /ɛl/
Forms:  OE–16 eln, ME–16 elne, ME–15 ellen (ME a nellen for an ellen), (ME ellyn, 15 eline), 15 el, ME–16 elle, 15– ell.(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use): 
Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English ęln  , strong feminine = Middle Dutch elne  , elle   (Dutch el  ), Old High German elina   (Middle High German elne  , modern German elle  ), Old Norse ǫln  , alin   (Swedish aln  , Danish alen  ), Gothic aleina   (? scribal error for *alina  ) cubit < Old Germanic *alinâ  , whence medieval Latin alena  , Italian alna  , Old Spanish alna  , Old Portuguese alna  , French aune  . The Old Germanic word (a compound of which is elbow n.) meant originally arm or fore-arm, and is cognate with Greek ὠλένη, Latin ulna, of same meaning.
The diversity of meanings (see below) is common to all words denoting linear measures derived from the length of the arm; compare cubit n.   and Latin ulna. The word ell seems to have been variously taken to represent the distance from the elbow or from the shoulder to the wrist or to the finger-tips, while in some cases a ‘double ell’ has superseded the original measure, and has taken its name.

 a. A measure of length varying in different countries. The English ell = 45 in.; the Scotch = 37·2; the Flemish = 27 in. Now hist. or with reference to foreign countries, the English measure being obsolete.In early use often in sing. when preceded by numerals.

c1000   West Saxon Gospels: Matt. (Corpus Cambr.) vi. 27   Hwylc eower mæg..geþencan þæt he ge-eacnige ane elne [950 Lindisf. elne an vel enne; 1160 Hatton enne elne] to hys anlicnesse.
c1000   in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 158   Ulna, eln.
1297   R. Gloucester's Chron. (1724) 429   False elnen & mesures he broȝte al clene adoun.
a1300   Cursor Mundi 1675   A schippe..Seuen score ellen lang and ten.
a1300   Cursor Mundi 1838   Þe flod ouer raght seuen eln and mare.
a1325  (▸c1250)    Gen. & Exod. (1968) l. 586   So wunderlike it wex & get Ðat fiftene elne it ouer-flet.
1487   Act 3 Hen. VII c. 7   All merchandises..used to be measured with Eln or Yard.
c1503   R. Arnold Chron. f. lxxvijv,   Item a fll. ell conteyneth iij q't's of an engz yarde, & v q't's of ye fll. ell makith an engz ell.
1520   in J. Raine Testamenta Eboracensia (1884) V. 119   A ellen of yolow velvett.
1543   R. Record Ground of Artes i. sig. N.v,   3 foote and 9 ynches make an elle.
1597   Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet ii. iii. 78   Oh heere is a witte of Cheuerell that stretcheth from an ynch narrow to an ell broad.
1609   J. Skene tr. Regiam Majestatem 57   King Davids common elne conteines threttie seven measured inches.
1630   R. Norton tr. W. Camden Hist. Princesse Elizabeth ii. 69   A monstrous Whale..whose length was..twentie of our Elnes.
1635   Earl of Manchester Al Mondo: Contemplatio Mortis (rev. ed.) 138   Ere long two ells of earth shall serve, whom scarce a world could satisfie.
1753   J. Hanway Hist. Acct. Brit. Trade Caspian Sea II. xxix. 180,   102 Ells Dantzig make 50 ells English.
1805   R. Forsyth Beauties Scotl. II. 275   The ell by which their acres have been measured (called the barony ell) contains 42 inches, whereas the common ell made use of in the country is only 38 inches.
1837   T. Carlyle French Revol. II. i. ix. 64   Tearful women wetting whole ells of cambric in concert.

c1000—1837(Hide quotations)


 b. fig. Contrasted with inch, span, etc.; esp. in proverbial phrase, give him an inch and he'll take an ell: meaning that undue advantage will be taken of a slight concession.

1546   J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue ii. ix. sig. Lv,   Ye lyked..better an ynche of your wyll, Than an ell of your thrifte.
1580   H. Gifford Posie of Gilloflowers i. sig. G,   Whereas shee tooke an inche of liberty before, tooke an Ell afterwardes.
1633   G. Herbert Church Porch in Temple (ad fin.),   Lifes poore span Make not an ell by trifling in thy wo.
1643   E. Bowles Mysterie Iniquitie 40   That gave but a Yard, they tooke an Ell.
1653   Z. Bogan Medit. Mirth Christian Life 305   Have a care of taking an ell, when you have but an inch allowed you.
1798   Anti-Jacobin 2 July 278/2   Tho' they still took an ell, when we gave them an inch.

1546—1798(Hide quotations)


 c. As a fluid measure.[Several correspondents inform us that they remember seeing the announcement ‘Beer sold by the yard’, on the signboards of country taverns, the reference being to the long narrow glasses about a yard high.]

1649   R. Lovelace Lucasta 99   For Elles of Beere, Flutes of Canary Thankes freest, freshest, Faire Ellinda.

1649—1649(Hide quotations)


 a. A measuring rod; = ell-wand n.   Phrase, to measure with the long ell , with the short ell: to measure unfairly as buyer or seller respectively.

1474   Caxton tr. Game & Playe of Chesse (1883) iii. vii. 138   In his lifte hande..an elle for to mesure with.
a1586   Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) i. xvii. sig. L1v,   The night measured by the short ell of sleepe.
1637   R. Monro Exped. Scots Regim. ii. 46   Sometimes the Souldiers (the worst sort of them) measured the packes belonging to the Marchants with the long ell.
1651   Bp. J. Hall Susurrium cum Deo lxxviii. 291   Thus spake a true Idols Priest, that knew no Ell whereby to measure Religion, but Profit.
1768   A. Tucker Light of Nature Pursued I. i. 214   The mercer..upon seeing the lady's gown..can cut off her quantity by guess without..taking his ell to measure it.

1474—1768(Hide quotations)


b. Sc. King's ell: ‘Orion's belt’: = ell-wand n. 3. Obs.

a1605   A. Montgomerie Flyting with Polwart in Wks. (1821) 118   Be the hornes, the handstaff and the King's ell.

a1605—a1605(Hide quotations)


3. long ell: a particular kind of cloth. Obs.

1725   D. Defoe New Voy. round World ii. 12   Bays, long Ells, Druggets, broad Cloth.
1735   G. Berkeley Querist §520   Fine cloths in Somersetshire, long ells at Exeter.

1725—1735(Hide quotations)


4. As a rendering of Latin ulna: The larger bone of the fore-arm. Obs.

1615   H. Crooke Μικροκοσμογραϕια 903   The other externall branch at the middle of the Ell shooteth out a propagation from his outside.
1634   T. Johnson tr. A. Paré Chirurg. Wks. vi. xxvi. 147   The Ell, or bone of the cubit..hath..two appendices.

1615—1634(Hide quotations)



 C1. General attrib. Also ell-wand n.

  ell-broad adj.

1476   in T. Stapleton Plumpton Corr. (1839) 37   The bredth of it is elme broade.
1696   J. F. Merchant's Ware-house 20   This being the last sort of Ellbroad Gentish that I shall treat of at present.

1476—1696(Hide quotations)


  ell-long adj.

1832   S. Austin tr. H. L. H. von Pückler-Muskau Tour German Prince III. ii. 36,   I ate a good dinner, and then added to this ell-long letter.

1832—1832(Hide quotations)


  ell-wide adj.

1653   J. Collinges Responsoria ad Erratica Piscatoris iv. sig. F1,   Your (ell-wide) opinion.
1826   M. R. Mitford Our Village II. 193   A pretty quaker..did persuade me that ell-wide muslin would go as far as a yard and a half.

1653—1826(Hide quotations)


  ell coal   n. Sc. a type of coal normally found in seams one ell or more in thickness.

1794   J. Naismith Agric. Clydesdale 36   About 16 or 17 fathoms under this, lies the ell coal, so called, because it was first found of this thickness, but it is frequently from 4 to 6 feet thick.
1845   New Statist. Acct. Scotl. V. 813   Seven other workable seams, in the following ascending order, viz. the stone-coal 21/ 4 feet; ell coal, 21/ 4.
1931   Econ. Geol. Fife(Geol. Surv.) I. 82   The Ell Coal lies 1 to 7 fms. above the Upper Eight Foot... Sometimes it is a single seam of 3 to 4 ft... The Ell is a steam coal.
1931   Times 16 Mar. 19/7   Lanarkshire.—Ell best, 15s. 6d.

1794—1931(Hide quotations)


ell-glass   n. Obs. (see 1c).

1682   Way to make Rum in Harl. Misc. I. 541   The Germans commonly drink whole tankards, and ell-glasses, at a draught.

1682—1682(Hide quotations)


ell-ridge   n. Obs. an old land-measure.

1756   Extract fr. MS. Let.   Peter Guffin (aged 82 in 1756) was unacquainted with such an old measure of land as an Ell Ridge, but had heard it contained 60 Luggs.

1756—1756(Hide quotations)


ell-yard   n. Obs. an ell-measure.

c1400  (▸?c1390)    Sir Gawain & Green Knight (1940) l. 210   Þe hede of an elnȝerde þe large lenkþe hade.
c1450   J. Myrc Instr. to Par. Priests 713   False ellen yerdes, wetyngly other than the lawe of the lond.

c1400—c1450(Hide quotations)