It’s all in hand: the lexical might of the humble ‘hand’
‘The terminal part of the human arm beyond the wrist, consisting of the palm, four fingers, and thumb, and used for grasping, holding, and manipulating things, and for gesturing.’ If I were writing a wedding speech and wanted to start with the classic ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines…’ opener, then something of the romance of the occasion might be lost – however functional the entry – if we were all musing on rings being put on the terminal part of the human arm.
Sadly (or perhaps thankfully) nobody has ever asked me to give a speech at a wedding, but it’s a great example of a time when the word hand is used in a way that doesn’t quite mean ‘hand’, i.e. taking someone’s hand in marriage. More on that later. This post is going to look at the ways the humble hand wanders into the territory of metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche – and not in a creepy Thing-from-The-Addams-Family way.
A dab hand
Hands are often used in figurative phrases to describe workers – indeed, the word hand has been used for ‘a person employed in any manual or unskilled work; a labourer or workman’ since at least the mid-16th century. This sense is now more often found with a modifying word indicating the type of work undertaken, such as farm-hand, factory-hand, or stage-hand.
This synecdoche of hand for a whole person is also seen in the phrase many hands make light work, and has particular use in some contexts – such as all hands on deck, where ‘hands’ specifically refers to sailors (a use first cited in 1580). In such uses, the hand represents manual work and while some might argue that it dehumanises the worker by zeroing in on only that key part of the anatomy, hand is also used of occupations where dexterity is emphasised rather than physical strength.
Artists, writers, and musicians might be described as the hands who created something – ‘the translation was written by various hands’; ‘several hands were at work in the creation of this sculpture’ – while somebody skilled at a particular talent can be called ‘a dab hand’. Dab hand is attested from the 19th century, but somebody proficient at something has been labelled a dab since the late-17th century. (The origin of this use of dab is unknown, but it has been conjectured that it is a corruption of adept or dapper – though there is little evidence to make the connection.)
It’s all in hand
When hand isn’t explicitly about physical ability or dextrous skill, it is often used to denote power. I’m in your hands passes agency over to somebody else, while it’s in her hands similarly suggests that the person in question is the one who has control over the situation. Having a hand in is similar, but is usually used in situations where more than one person has contributed. In these cases, ‘hand’ is a metaphor as the hand stands not for a physical person and their physical acts, but their decisions and commands.
Possession is also a form of control, and we speak of an object being in someone’s hands if they own or possess it – the same idea leading to the adjectival compounds second-hand, third-hand etc. (and, indeed, third-hand is attested some decades before the first known instance of second-hand; there’s some irony in there somewhere, though I can’t quite put my finger on it).
Power and possession come together in phrases like she’s in the hands of the police, while to have a situation in hand means that one is managing it well – and, incidentally, the word manage comes from the Latin manus, ‘hand’. (Manage appears to have first entered the English language in the sense ‘to put (a horse) through the paces of the manège’, and later broadened in use.) Manus is also the etymological root of command, maintain, manoeuvre, manner and possibly even manatee.
Handshakes and giving one’s hand
Let’s return to giving one’s hand in marriage – variants of which have existed since Middle English. Many wedding ceremonies have moments that focus on hands, and traditional wedding services have often included the father of the bridge literally holding his daughter’s hand and passing it to the groom – though modern ceremonies often bypass this, as it can be considered sexist or archaic. But the idea of hands being used to make promises or swear oaths is much wider than marriages, including, of course, shaking hands to signify promises made by both parties in a deal or exchange.
In a similar vein, in the 15th century, the phrase to give hands is first found in a translation of the biblical book Ezekiel: ‘Forsothe he dispiside the ooth, that he shulde breke the boond of pees, and loo! He ȝaf his hoond’. A more recent translation for context (in case you are not conversant in 15th century English): ‘He despised the oath by breaking the covenant. Because he had given his hand in pledge and yet did all these things, he shall not escape’.
Horses, elephants, and herrings
We’re more accustomed to describing distances and sizes by comparison with feet – and, though Britain officially adopted the metric system in 1965, you’re still more likely to find people here who know their height in feet than in centimetres. The most notable exception to this is when measuring a horse. Not, perhaps, an activity that each of us indulges in on a regular basis, but, were you do so, each hand would be the equivalent to four inches (approximately 10.2 cm). Curiously, a hand had previously been understood as three inches (approximately 7.8 cm), when used as a more general measurement. Have hands grown, or are big-handed people more likely to measure horses? Who can say. (The answer to both those things is likely ‘no’.)
Over time, hand has also been used for a bundle of tobacco leaves, the trunk of an elephant, and anything that comes in a group of five – I’ll leave you to puzzle out why, there. More unexpectedly, those groups of five as (the OED notes) ‘especially oranges or herrings’. Sure, why not? And then there’s ‘a certain quantity of watercress’, with the additional OED note that ‘the exact quantity this represents is unknown’. You could pop to a greengrocer to find out, but the use is now obsolete so you’d have to find a way of getting back to the 1850s first.
Hands are surprisingly versatile, it turns out, and this post is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways that they’ve been employed in phrases and idioms over the centuries – but next time you have a hand phrase to hand, have a think about what it connotes. I’ll leave that in your hands.