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"?
Orin cites Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, which offers this 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).
But Orin tracks the phrase back in American legal contexts as far as 1798, and discovers that the early uses are all of the form "run on all fours", not "stand on all fours", and suggests that
the context suggests that the visual image is more an animal running alongside the observer than two animals standing next to each other. If an animal is running on all four legs beside you, the thinking might be, it means that it remains close to you and goes where you go.
The OED (it's always a mistake not to check the OED) notes the 19th-century s-addition,
[formerly all four, sc. extremities. The -s was added prob. during the 19th century; not in Johnson 1808.]
invokes a metaphor of the form "not limping = fair or even, not lame", and gives an earlier citation, from a British legal context, which also involves running, and is applied to a comparison:
2. fig. to run on all fours, i.e. fairly, evenly, not to limp like a lame dog. to be, or stand, on all fours: to be even or on a level, to present an exact analogy or comparison (with).
1710 SIR J. ST. LEGER in Somers Tracts (1751) III. 248 Tho' the Comparison should not exactly run upon all four when examined.
1877 Daily Tel. 15 Mar., It must stand on all fours with that stipulation.
1883 Daily News 8 Feb. 3/7 The decision I have quoted is on all fours with this case.
Note that the use of lame with respect to arguments is much older, and surely related:
2. fig. a. Maimed, halting; imperfect or defective, unsatisfactory as wanting a part or parts. Said esp. of an argument, excuse, account, narrative, or the like. Phr. lame to the ground (cf. Antrim & Down Gloss. s.v. Lame ‘A stab of a bayonet which has lamed me to the ground.’).
c1374 CHAUCER Troylus II. Prol. 17 Disblameth my yf ony word be lame. For as myn auctor seyde so sey I.
1390 GOWER Conf. II. 218 The gold hath made his wittes lame.
1531 ELYOT Gov. I. xxv, That the knowlege and contemplation of Natures operations were lame and..imperfecte, if there followed none actuall experience.
1581 J. BELL Haddon's Answ. Osor. 164b, Let us yet helpe his lame Logicke as well as we may.
1604 SHAKES. Oth. II. i. 162 Oh most lame and impotent conclusion.
1634 CANNE Necess. Separation (1849) 287, I will not contend much with him about the proposition, which is lame to the ground.
Perhaps in a legal system in which so many arguments involve an analogy between the present case and some other case, the notion of "(un)sound comparison" needed its own special metaphor, and picked it up from this particular way of talking about an animal (perhaps a horse, which would be running under you, or ahead of you pulling your carriage) that can (or can't) run properly on all four legs.
Outside the legal context, an example of "going upon all four" as an expression for "running well" can be found in Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Vol. 3, Chap. XXIV (1760):
Tho' the shock my uncle Toby received the year after the demolition of Dunkirk, in his affair with widow Wadman, had fixed him in a resolution, never more to think of the sex,---or of aught which belonged to it;---yet corporal Trim had made no such bargain with himself. Indeed in my uncle Toby's case there was a strange and unaccountable concurrence of circumstances which insensibly drew him in, to lay siege to that fair and strong citadel. ---In Trim's case there was a concurrence of nothing in the world, but of him and Bridget in the kitchen;---though in truth, the love and veneration he bore his master was such, and so fond was he of imitating him in all he did, that had my uncle Toby employed his time and genius in tagging of points,---I am persuaded the honest corporal would laid down his arms, and followed his example with pleasure. When therefore my uncle Toby sat down before the mistress,---corporal Trim incontinently took ground before the maid.
Now, my dear friend Garrick, whom I have so much cause to esteem and honour, ---(why, or wherefore, 'tis no matter) ---can it escape your penetration,---I defy it,---that so many play-wrights, and opificers of chit chat have ever since been working upon Trim's and my uncle Toby's pattern. ---I care not what Aristotle, or Pacuvius, or Bossu, or Ricaboni say,--- (though I never read one of them)--- there is not a greater difference between a single-horse chair and madam Pompadour's vis a vis, than betwixt a single amour, and an amour thus nobly doubled, and going upon all four, prancing throughout a grand drama. ---Sir, a simple, single, silly affair of that kind,--- is quite lost in five acts,---but that is neither here or there. [emphasis added]
In this context, "going upon all four" is kind of like the mid-20th-century expression "running on all eight (cylinders)".
By the way, a vis-a-vis was
1. A light carriage for two persons sitting face-to-face. Obs. exc. Hist.
apparently drawn by a single animal, e.g.
1768 J. BYRON Narr. Patagonia (ed. 2) 230 The common vehicle here is a calash, or kind of vis-à-vis, drawn by one mule only.
So perhaps the metaphor was originally not so much "level" as "running properly, like a sound horse".
[Update -- but Tom Recht observes that Sterne may be talking about wheels, not feet:
I think there's simpler and more concrete reading of Laurence Sterne's "going upon all four" than the one you suggest in today's post (an idiom for "running well"). A single-horse chair has two wheels, a vis-a-vis has four; a single amour is like the first, a nobly doubled one like the second. So I don't think we need to assume any contemporary idiomatic meaning of the phrase at all: Sterne is just improvising a characteristically fanciful analogy between lovers and carriage wheels, rather than using an existing idiom.
The "prancing" part suggested legs rather than wheels to me, but Tom might well be right.]
[And Jim Lewis has yet another version of the metaphor to contribute:
Odd, because I heard a version of the phrase often, when I was doing grad work in philosophy: one problem was said to be "down on all fours" with another. It meant something like 'eye to eye', or 'fair' or 'on equal ground': I always pictured it as a version of being down on one's hands and knees (i.e., when talking to small child, or a dog), thereby leveling the playing field.
I don't know if this is directly relevant to "running on all fours", but it seems close, both in its derivation and its meaning. I'd be curious to know if you can find any examples of "down on all fours" in the relevant data which would indicate that they're connected, and that one gave part of its meaning to the other.
Mary Blockley adds:
An Australian-born Oxford don (b. circa 1920) used "on all fours" in a non-dynamic sense, for an argument that stood firm and level as a well-made table does on a level floor.
Horse's legs, table's legs, wheels, hands-and-knees -- there are lots of possible meanings for "all four(s)", and even more available metaphors, some of which modify or even reverse the sense of the expression. An earlier example "upon all four" that seems to refer to hands-and-knees can be found in John Flavel's 1691 "Planelogia, a succinct and seasonable discourse of the occasions, causes, nature, rise, growth, and remedies of mental errors written some months since, and now made publick, both for the healing and prevention of the sins and calamities which have broken in this way upon the churches of Christ, to the great scandal of religion, hardening of the wicked, and obstruction of Reformation". Here "it runs upon all four" seems to mean something like "it crawls on hands and knees, and thus is slow and inadequate":
I will neither tire my Reader in a foolish chase of such weak and impertinent Arguments as he there produceth, nor yet wholly neglect them, lest he glory in them as unanswerable. And therefore to shew him the fate of the rest, I will only touch his first Argument, which being his Argumentum Palmarium, deservedly leads the Van to all the rest. And thus it runs upon all four. [...]
Your Major Proposition takes the Law in its large complex body, as appears by your 3d page. Your Minor Proposition, which you would confirm by Gal. 3. 12. takes the Law strictly and abstractly, as it is set disjunctly from, yea in opposition to Faith and the Promises, and so there are two sorts of Law in your Argument, and consequently your Argument is fallacious, as all its fellows be, and runs (as I told you before) upon all four.
In Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders (1887) there's an example of the modern legal meaning outside of the legal context (Vol. III, Chapter VI):
After stating how extremely glad he was to hear that she was better, and able to get out of doors, he went on:
"This is a wearisome business, the solicitor we have come to see being out of town. I do not know when I shall get home. My great anxiety in this delay is still lest you should lose Giles Winterborne. I cannot rest at night for thinking that while our business is hanging fire he may become estranged, or in his shyness go away from the neighbourhood. I have set my heart upon seeing him your husband, if you ever have another. Do then, Grace, give him some temporary encouragement, even though it is over-early. For when I consider the past I do think God will forgive me and you for being a little forward. I have another reason for this, my dear. I feel myself going rapidly down hill, and late affairs have still further helped me that way. And until this thing is done I cannot rest in peace." [..] .
The paternal longing ran on all fours with her own desire; and yet in forwarding it yesterday she had been on the brink of giving offence. While craving to be a country girl again, just as her father requested; to put off the old Eve, the fastidious miss---or rather madam---completely, her first attempt had been beaten by the unexpected vitality of that fastidiousness. Her father on returning and seeing the trifling coolness of Giles would be sure to say that the same perversity which had led her to make difficulties about marrying Fitzpiers was now prompting her to blow hot and cold with poor Winterborne. [emphasis added]
And in Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888) there's a similar example (Vol. II, Book IV, Chapter XXX):
By the time they parted Robert had arranged with his old enemy that he should become his surety with a rich cousin in Churton, who, always supposing there were no risk in the matter, and that benevolence ran on all fours with security of investment, was prepared to shield the credit of the family by the advance of a sufficient sum of money to rescue the ex-agent from his most pressing difficulties. He had also wrung from him the promise to see a specialist in London---Robert writing that evening to make the appointment. [emphasis added]
The meaning of "ran on all fours with" in these examples is clearly something like "matched" or "was congruent with"; but by 1887-8 the phrase seems simply to be a familiar idiom, without any plain indication of its metaphorical source.
In the end, it still seems most likely to me that the basic metaphor here deals with legs, probably of horses (or perhaps pairs of horses?), and has to do with "sound" vs. "lame" arguments or comparisons. But these last two examples certainly do "run on all fours with" Orin's image of "an animal running alongside the observer". ]
[Susan M. Harrelson suggests yet another interpretation:
I am a lawyer, and graduated from law school in 2002. While I was in school, I occasionally heard the phrase, "on all fours [with]." A far more common term was, "the four corners of the document." This was usually used in the sense of having to rely only on what was actually expressed in a contract, rather than going outside it to gather extrinsic evidence of its meaning.
I always thought that "on all fours" was related to "the four corners," and my mental picture is a congruent (in the geometric sense) figure, as in laying a rectangle on top of another and having them touch at all four corners. The image of two dogs squaring off at each other seems bizarre to me, as a way of describing congruence between one case and another. Same with the carriages.
I think the phrase refers to four corners, rather than to four-legged animals, or four-wheeled vehicles, since the concept being described is congruence, rather than stability.
A very creative contribution. Given the clear history of "on all four(s) with" as involving running rather than standing, Susan's interpretion is not a good theory of the origin of this phrase.. However, as an account of its contemporary usage, it does make considerably more sense than talk of dogs, horses and tables. Unfortunately, lexicography is like accountancy: creativity and common sense are not encouraged as methods.
Just for completeness, here's what the OED has for "within the four corners of":
within the four corners of (a document): (emphatic for) within the limits or scope of its contents.
1874 MORLEY Compromise (1886) 37 The spirit of the Church is eternally entombed within the four corners of acts of parliament.
]Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2006 04:12 PM