Who said "Brits think 100 miles is a long distance - Americans think 100 years is a long time"?

It's one of those pithy little quotes which reveals so much about our two cultures. The average Briton considers anything more than a 45 minute trip a bit of a schelp, whereas Americans will seemingly drive half a day just to get some ribs from that one place they like. Conversely, I went to school opposite a church which pre-dated Columbus's invasion of North America - and I doubt that was the oldest church in the town!

But who said it first? Oh, there are a variety of sites online which will swear that it's a modern author. But let's see if we can find a quote from the last century.

Back in 1999, Neil Gaiman was interviewed in Locus Magazine and said:

England has history; Americans have geography. Which goes back to that joke, ‘America is a country where 100 years is a long time, and England is a country where 100 miles is a long way.’ Both of those things are true on many levels. There really isn’t a great English road trip tradition, because in three or four days, you’ve done it all. Whereas in America, the idea of the road trip is this magnificent long slog.

So it was already an establish trope by the tail-end of the millennium - as can be seen in Billboard Magazine's October 1998 edition.

Diana Gabaldon published "Drums of Autumn" in 1996. She's often cited as the origin of the quote.

She smiled, but with a wry edge to it. 'My father always said that was the difference between an American and an Englishman. An Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long way; an American thinks a hundred years is a long time.' Roger laughed, taken by surprise. 'Too right You'll be an American, then, I suppose?'

Travelling back a bit further, there's a Usenet post from 1995 where 'Mike "from the US, but my wife is from Scotland" Bartman' says:

It appears that the difference between the US and the UK is that in the UK 100 miles is a long way, and in the US 100 years is a long time... ;^)

There's quite a few Usenet posts with that phrase, but I couldn't find any before the mid 90s.

In 1992, Benjamin Jones wrote a column in "EUROPE, The Magazine of the European Community" (ISSN 0191-4545)

There's a saying that the difference between the two nations is that the British think 100 miles is a long way, while the Americans think 100 years is a long time.

(60MB PDF Source)

But the earliest I can reliably trace it back is a book from 1991 called "The Changing context of social-health care : its implications for providers and consumers". It in, Emily Friedman wrote a paper called "Patients as Partners: The Changing Health Care Environment" which talks, in part, about the litigious nature of American consumers of health services. She writes:

Unfortunately or fortunately, this situation will prevail for some time to come, because the United States, as a nation, is going through a delayed adolescence, and we are questioning everything. We are a very new country, even if we are an old democracy, and we don't have it all down yet. As my friend Simon, an Englishman, says, "The British think a hundred miles is a long way; Americans think a hundred years is a long time."

You can read the original at the Internet Archive or on Google Books.

Who was this "Simon"? Is he a real or imagined interlocutor? Did he originate this mot juste? Given the passage of time, it's probably impossible to find out.

Sadly, Emily died in 2016. It sounds like she fought tirelessly for justice - may she rest in power.

As for unreliable sources? There's this page from Jan Kučera which catalogues jokes posted to HUMOR@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU. It appears to have gone live around 1996:

From: hcate.OSBU_North@XEROX.COM
Subject: Life 3.S A collection of clean humor gathered on: 21 Nov 88. "Give me a place to sit, and I'll watch."
-- friend of Archimedes "Great leaders are rare, so I'm following myself." Guy walks into a restaurant. Orders eggs. The waitress asks "How would you like those eggs cooked?" The guy says "Hey, that would be great."
"No job too big; no fee too big!" --Dr. Peter Venkman, "Ghost-busters" Difference between US & UK... UK - 100 miles is a long distance. US - 100 years is a long time.

That claims to be from 1988 - but there doesn't appear to be an archive of the HUMOR@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU listserve that I can find.

However, it does turn up in the venerable TextFiles:

From: fraser@engine.dec.com (Product Acoustics Group*MLO6-2/T13*223-8744). Subject: Difference between US & UK... Keywords: rec_humor_cull, smirk. Date: 22 Nov 88 16:30:06 GMT. Organization: Digital Equipment Corporation. UK - 100 miles is a long distance. US - 100 years is a long time. Edited by Brad Templeton.  MAIL, yes MAIL your jokes to watmath!looking!funny . Attribute the joke's source if at all possible.  I will reply, mailers willing. If you MUST reply to a rejection, include a description of your joke because there is 0 chance I will remember which one it was.

It looks like "Fraser" at DEC sent that via UUCP to (for those of you not familiar with the now obsolete "Bang Path Notation) funny at looking via University of Waterloo's math department. Whereupon Brad Templeton probably re-circulated it to Usenet's "rec.humor.funny".

And that's as far back as I can trace it. Early Internet history is either mouldering on a set of tapes somewhere or completely lost. Google Books and Archive.org don't show the phrase appearing any earlier. But perhaps your research skills are better than mine?

Can you find an earlier reference? If so, please stick a comment in the usual box.

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7 thoughts on “Who said "Brits think 100 miles is a long distance - Americans think 100 years is a long time"?”

  1. says:

    @Edent I think some of the differences iron out when your unit is time rather than distance?

    I live about three and a half miles away from the city centre and I always have to allow an hour for meeting friends in town after work.

    Americans would laugh if I said I lived "an hour away" from the centre, but that's my reality.

    I'm not opposed in principle to travelling 100 miles, but their 100 miles is very different from mine!

  2. this is interesting but what really blew my mind was "Oh, there are a variety of sites online which will swear that it's a modern author. But let's see if we can find a quote from the last century.
    Back in 1999, Neil Gaiman was interviewed in Locus Magazine and said:"

    Yes children Gaiman is a non modern author from the last century kills self #geriatricfakemillennial

  3. Kostas says:

  4. @Edent ah, the days of incompatible email networks that you had to manually route to the target across multiple inter-network gateways.
    Bang path notation
    Percent notation
    Coloured book protocols and Janet domain names
    DECNET notation
    A bit like today's proprietary instant messaging only there's no gateways for those.

  5. says:

    @blog thanks for looking into this, I always wondered where it came from. Was commonly used to explain why State College, PA has a historic district from the 1960s

  6. @blog I've never heard it. It could equally apply to Australia.

    It sounds like something Bill Bryson would say, or quote in "Notes from a small island". But 1988 would pre-date that.

    1. mike says:

      I'm certain I first encountered this saying in a Bill Bryson book, but have been unable to work out which one. And all the books of his I've read were published after 1988.


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