pageok
pageok
pageok
The Origin of "On All Fours":
One of the legal profession's stranger expressions is that a case is "on all fours" with another case. It means that the former case raises the same facts and legal principles as the latter and is therefore highly relevant as a precedent. You might wonder, what's the origin of the phrase "on all fours"? The answer turns to be kind of interesting.

  According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, the phrase "on all fours" originally conjured an image of a four-legged animal like a dog. "On all fours" was originally "on all four," with the word "leg" assumed, so the phrase meant "on all four legs." An animal that walked on all four legs was a strong, stable, and certain animal, as compared to an animal with a bad leg that would have a limp or other unsteady gait.

  How do you get from a phrase meaning strong and stable to a phrase meaning a strong analogy? Here is Quinion's explanation:
In the eighteenth century, people started to use to run on all four as a figurative expression to describe some proposition or circumstance that was fair or equitable, well-founded, sturdily able to stand by itself. To be on all four or to stand on all four meant to be on a level with another, to present an exact analogy or comparison with something else (presumably the image is of two animals standing together, both on all four legs, hence in closely similar situations).
  Now, I don't know if that latter explanation is right. If it is, though, it means that when a lawyer says that one case is "on all fours" with another, he's asking the court to imagine two dogs standing next to each other. Who knew.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "Running on All Fours":
  2. The Origin of "On All Fours":
spider:
Let's stop socializing lawyers to use stupid jargon that doesn't add any meaning, but makes the lawyers feel all tingly for being part of a secret jargon-using society. Other examples include "parade of horribles", "as between", "as against" (why not just say "between" or "against" ?!), "Comes now", and 95% of French/Latin terms.

Other commenters can add their own examples.

[OK Comments: After that, we should figure out how to stop blog commenters from hijacking comment threads.]
12.19.2006 11:46pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):

Let's stop socializing lawyers to use stupid jargon that doesn't add any meaning, but makes the lawyers feel all tingly for being part of a secret jargon-using society. Other examples include "parade of horribles", "as between", "as against" (why not just say "between" or "against" ?!), "Comes now", and 95% of French/Latin terms.
Other commenters can add their own examples.


Might as well say the same thing about any other profession or societal group...
12.19.2006 11:50pm
Anonymous_:
I would have imagined that table legs would have been a more sensible metaphor for why "on all four" connotes stability.
12.19.2006 11:52pm
John (mail):
Hey, spider, de minimis non curat lex.
12.20.2006 12:11am
J.B. Clamence (mail):

In a different vein, the Spanish phrase en cuatro has a completely different idiomatic meaning. In this case the dogs aren't standing next to each other, but rather are oriented in a more... err... "intimate" fashion.

For additional references see the song "Ponerte en Cuatro" by the excellent Venezuelan group Los Amigos Invisibles.
12.20.2006 12:14am
Lev:

I would have imagined that table legs would have been a more sensible metaphor for why "on all four" connotes stability.


in pari passu, ever had to stick something under one of the legs to keep the table from rocking?
12.20.2006 12:17am
Lev:

French/Latin terms


Dominus vobiscum
12.20.2006 12:18am
DRJ (mail):
If this phrase were based on the table leg analogy rather than on animals, I could see a correlation between "on all fours" and "squares," e.g., the case squares with prevailing case law. Both bring to mind the precision of carpentry and the concept of "building" a contract through negotiation into a finished written product.
12.20.2006 12:37am
txjeansguy:
lev, sometimes all you have to do is squint.
12.20.2006 12:50am
BruceM (mail) (www):
I figured it was a reference to the "four corners" of the paper.
12.20.2006 12:57am
Cornellian (mail):
So why would it be "on all fours" (plural) instead of "on all four?"
12.20.2006 2:06am
Dick King:
When the phrase was first quoined, most cars probably had four cylinder engines. Could it be a reference to a car firing on all four of its cylinders?

-dk
12.20.2006 2:35am
jim:
So does people's seeming unfamiliarity with the phrase mean that they don't use "on all fours" to describe the physical action of moving on all four of your limbs - i.e. "crawling" ? Because I've heard the expression used that way all of my life, and was very surprised to hear that the origin listed here wasn't 100% obvious. Interesting to know that it also denotes a strong legal case, though.
12.20.2006 2:52am
jim:
also, "crouched down on all fours" to describe huddling low to the ground. Am I weird that I think of these as common phrases?
12.20.2006 2:55am
ajftoo:
The phrase obviously originates at the livery.
12.20.2006 3:48am
António Costa Amaral (AA) (mail) (www):
"Four (legs) good"? :D
12.20.2006 4:09am
Pete Freans (mail):
[OK Comments: After that, we should figure out how to stop blog commenters from hijacking comment threads.]

Sustained...
12.20.2006 7:24am
tefta2 (mail):
On all fours means literally crawling, i.e., in a weakened condition, while standing four square means strong, fair and equitable.
12.20.2006 7:36am
Richard Riley (mail):
Like BruceM, I have assumed it meant the four corners of a piece of paper, and two cases are "on all fours" when metaphorically you can place a writeup of the new case directly over the old one with nothing askew or peeking out the sides.

(The objection that it should be "on all four" rather than "on all fours" would apply to the quadriped animal derivation as well.)

I'm suspicious of the World Wide Words post; folk etymologies like that are often wrong. And why does that post say the phrase is falling out of use? It's not especially common but I haven't noticed it being used any less in (say) the 23 years I've been out of law school.
12.20.2006 8:27am
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
Lev: Dominus vobiscum

Et cum spititu tuo.
12.20.2006 9:09am
anonVCfan:
The "with" part always confused me. Sure, "on all fours" means stable, but "on all fours with" is usually meant to denote some kind of congruence. Whenever another student would say this in law school, I'd imagine one dog standing on all fours on top of a mirror. Then I'd think that was weird and unhelpful and go back to playing pinball on my laptop until he'd shut up and the lecture would continue.
12.20.2006 9:50am
Guest2 (mail):

I'm suspicious of the World Wide Words post



Me too. Some authorities (on Quinion's part) would have been nice.
12.20.2006 9:52am
Goobermunch:
I've always assumed it was a reference to dogs. I suppose I should blame that on my contracts prof, who I believe clerked for Blackstone (j/k). Whenever we found a case that was similar to, but slightly distinct from, a previous one, he was wont to say "even a three legged dog still barks . . . ."

--G
12.20.2006 9:57am
Anderson (mail) (www):
What Lev said. An authority can be wobbly, or it can be on all fours.
12.20.2006 9:59am
Zach (mail):
Sounds like an early version of "firing on all cylinders," which might be similarly confusing if the internal combustion engine becomes less ubiquitous in the future.
12.20.2006 10:07am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Quinion, who is one of the editors of the OED, is very strongly against folk etymologies.
12.20.2006 10:47am
Peter B. Nordberg (mail) (www):
The cases are on all fours when they square.
12.20.2006 10:52am
OrinKerr:
Dick King,

Interesting theory, although a quick Westlaw check confirms that the phrase predates the use of automobiles. To pick a random month, Decemeber 1889, here are some uses of the phrase in decided cases:

1. Toole v. State,
88 Ala. 158, 7 So. 42, Ala., Dec 16, 1889

... to legality in the one instance, and to criminality in the other. Endl. Interp. St. § 431. The case is on all fours to those referred to in the text cited, in which it is held that where the deed of a married ...

2. Cort v. Lassard,
6 L.R.A. 653, 18 Or. 221, 22 P. 1054, 17 Am.St.Rep. 726, Or., Dec 09, 1889

... an actress from violating her agreement to play at the plaintiff's theater for a stated period; and the case is on all fours with Lumley v. Wagner, supra. See, also, Hahn v. Society, 42 Md. 465; McCaull v. Braham, 16 Fed.Rep. 37. In ...

3. Missouri Pac. Ry. Co. v. Wright,
38 Mo.App. 141, 1889 WL 1693, Mo.App., Dec 02, 1889

... consent of a debtor. In the case of Rice v. Dudley, 34 Mo. 383, decided at last term, which is "on all fours" with this, we entered into rather an extended examination and review of the various decisions of the supreme court of ...


4. Jennings v. St. Joseph &St. L. Ry. Co.,
37 Mo.App. 651, 1889 WL 1943, Mo.App., Dec 02, 1889

... no case was made against the defendant, for the same reasons as heretofore declared by this court in a controversy "on all fours" with the case now under review. Pearson v. Railroad, 33 Mo. App. 546. By the evidence adduced at the trial ...
12.20.2006 11:00am
Birdman2 (mail):
The notion that "on all four" (or "on all fours") refers metaphorically to a strong, soundly based animal, as opposed to one with a bad leg, is consistent with what I believe is a relevant German saying. That saying, I understand, is "All analogies limp," meaning that analogies are never perfect copies of what is being discussed. As a non-German speaker I can't warrant the accuracy of what I remember on this point, but there may be an interesting connection here.
12.20.2006 12:11pm
wordwarp (www):
The term "back on all fours" refers to an animal being healthy again, ie. not on three legs, but four.
12.20.2006 12:45pm
Alfalfa Male:
In one of my first year law classes, one of my professors explained the origin of the phrase to the class. I've always assumed all 1L's heard the same story. The phrase came from a particular judicial decision involving a dispute over a cow. I don't recall the details, but one of the attorneys in the case, in making his argument, cited a previous decision involving a cow. However, that case involved a dead cow, whereas the instant controversy involved a living cow. Opposing counsel cited a different decision that involved a living cow. The judge ruled in his favor, stating that the attorney had better authority because it was "on all fours".
12.21.2006 12:30pm