Perhaps you wondered why “hands” went unmentioned in our discussions of body language. Idioms about hands are so numerous they merit a column of their own.
Here are a few such expressions: lend a hand, hands are tied, change hands, hand-out and hands up.
Many hand idioms come from card-playing and gambling. Cards dealt to players are hands, and to throw in one’s hand originated in poker. When you throw in your hand, you give up or abandon something. In poker, you’re no longer in the game.
If you play into someone’s hand, your actions or behaviour benefit someone else. In cards, you’re doing exactly what your opponent hoped for.
To force someone’s hand, originally a French idiom, also began at the card table. To show one’s hand is another expression from poker. To tip one’s hand — to unintentionally reveal plans — is another card-playing term that has entered English vernacular.
Hands-down comes from horse racing. It originally referred to a jockey with such a big lead he could afford to relax his grip on the reins. It’s used today as a synonym for “easy/easily.”
Another group of hand sayings originate in the Bible. To diligently set about some task is to put one’s hand to the plough. In Luke 9:62, we read: “And Jesus said unto him, no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Evidently, Jesus is saying, “Don’t have second thoughts.”
Also: “And they departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the morrow after the Passover the Children of Israel went out with a high hand in the sight of the Egyptians.”
Today, to act with a high hand is to behave arrogantly. In the case of the Israelites, their behaviour was more triumphant than arrogant.
To wash one’s hands of something or someone is to deny responsibility. This is also biblical. “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matthew 27:24).
Other idioms, although not biblical, are also very old. To keep one’s hand in (to remain capable) goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. To be hand-in-glove with someone (to share a close relationship) is from 1678 when it was hand and glove. To bite the hand that feeds you is from 1770.
Hand over fist, originally nautical jargon, is early 19th century. Many hands make light work, considered an English proverb, cannot be dated.
Hand down, hand-me-down, second hand, hand on, and hand over have related, but not identical meanings.
To do something by hand is to do it without any machinery — hand laundry, hand-writing and hand grenade.
To hand pick, have one’s hand out, throw up one’s hands, be at hand and take in hand are terms we hear on a daily basis.
You have to hand it to hand. It’s a handy word to know.