to spread oneself a bit

HermanTheGerman

Senior Member
German
Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "Jelland's Voyage" contains the following sentence:

He [=the company owner] had had the tip from someone that his clerks had been spreading themselves a bit, and that had made him come down out of his usual routine; [...]

Am I right in assuming that "spreading themselves a bit" is the same as "spreading themselves a bit thin?" I.e. the manager had heard rumors that his clerks are overworked and can't handle their duties correctly?
 
  • Szkot

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I think your assumption is unlikely. A few paragraphs later the manager discovers that the clerks have robbed the company, so the phrase suggests to me that the manager had been warned that his clerks were doing things they should not be. Possibly they have been seen spending some of their loot.
     

    HermanTheGerman

    Senior Member
    German
    I think your assumption is unlikely. A few paragraphs later the manager discovers that the clerks have robbed the company, so the phrase suggests to me that the manager had been warned that his clerks were doing things they should not be. Possibly they have been seen spending some of their loot.
    Thanks for your reply. How would you then rephrase "spreading themselves a bit" in this context, given the information that the above-mentioned clerks were seen in a casino gambling away all of their own money and substantial amounts of their employer's money:

    a) they embezzled money
    b) they spent more money than they should have
    c) they incurred more debt than they could ever repay
    d) none of the above
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    I agree with Szkot, and given the extra context, I might rephrase this specific use of "spreading themselves a bit" as:
    e) (they were seen) overstretching themselves financially

    A good German idiom for this might be: "über die Stränge schlagen" (to overdo something, to overindulge). That seems to fit well to the original idiom 'to spread oneself'. One of the internet sources defined it as "being or becoming overly active in all parts of life, beyond the "norm" of one's social status, financial capabilities, etc." (something along these lines -- I'm paraphrasing because I can't find that link any more)
     

    bennymix

    Senior Member
    M-W unabridged has this entry for spread:
    spread oneself
    :
    to be lavish (as in effort, generosity, hospitality) <spread themselves to entertain visiting delegates>

    Parla, above, was generally on the right track, in my opinion.

    I agree with Szkot that the OP inquiry about 'spreading thin' is not the right approach.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    Dictionary.com gives a definition for "spread oneself": to make a great effort; to do one's utmost.

    It gives this example: "You may be sure the staff will spread itself to accomodate you".

    They also give a year for this (1857+). Arthure Conan Doyle was born in 1859, so he probably knew the phrase. I don't think it is used today.
     

    bennymix

    Senior Member
    That definition does not seem to make sense in the OP. The issue is something that raises suspicions, especially of wrongdoing.

    Dictionary.com gives a definition for "spread oneself": to make a great effort; to do one's utmost.

    It gives this example: "You may be sure the staff will spread itself to accomodate you".

    They also give a year for this (1857+). Arthure Conan Doyle was born in 1859, so he probably knew the phrase. I don't think it is used today.
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    I found another definition of the metaphor "to spread oneself" here: to boast, to brag

    This meaning would make a lot of sense in this context. The link claims to list American metaphors, so it might not apply to Doyle's writings.
    Let's see if a BE speaker can confirm this use in current or past BE.
     
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