50 Handy Expressions About Hands

By Mark Nichol

Do you know all these expressions about hands? Most of them are cliches, but using just about any cliche is forgivable if you do so in a fresh way, or to add a note of humor.

1. “All hands on deck,” from the traditional nautical command for every sailor to report for duty, refers to the necessity of everyone involved to lend a hand, or assist.

2. To bite the hand that feeds you is to be hostile to someone who has been kind to you.

3. To be a dab hand is, in British English, to be an expert.

4. “The devil makes work for idle hands” is a proverb that means that inactive people are susceptible to the temptation to do wrong.

5. To know something firsthand is to be directly familiar with the facts.

6. To force someone’s hand is to compel them to act prematurely or involuntarily.

7. Having a free hand is being given wide latitude about how to carry out a task or responsibility.

8. To gain the upper hand is to obtain control.

9. To get your hands dirty is to engage in a important activity that may not be pleasant.

10. To give a hand is to help, though it also refers to applauding by clapping one’s hands.

11. To give a guiding hand is to offer advice or mentorship.

12. Something that goes hand in hand with something else is closely associated with it.

13. To be in good, or safe, hands is to be assured that you will be taken care of.

14. To hand something down is to offer it to an heir, or to deliver a decision.

15. To hand in something is to deliver it.

16. To work hand in glove is to work together intimately.

17. To hand something off is to pass it along to someone else, with the connotation of delegating it.

18. To hand something on is to pass it along to someone else in succession.

19. To hand something out is to offer it to recipients.

20. To hand something over is to deliver it to someone in authority, perhaps reluctantly or unwillingly.

21. To earn money hand over fist is to do so quickly.

22. To hand something to somebody on a platter (often a silver one) is to enable them to achieve something without effort.

23. To hand something up is to present it to a higher authority, such as grand jury to a judge.

24. To win hands down is to do so conclusively.

25. To be hands-off is to distance oneself from an activity or project.

26. To be hands-on is to directly involve oneself in an activity or project.

27. To have blood on one’s hands is to be culpable for an act.

28. When you tell someone you have to hand it to them, you’re giving them a compliment.

29. To have your hands full is to be busy.

30. To act with a heavy hand is to do so harshly or with too much force.

31. A heavy-handed gesture or action is one that is lacking in subtlety.

32. When the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it means that communication among associates is poor.

33. To lend a hand is to assist.

34. To know something like the back of one’s hand is to know it thoroughly.

35. To live from hand to mouth is to be poor.

36. To be an old hand is to be familiar with or to be an expert at something.

37. To say that something is on hand is to indicate that it is available.

38. “On the other hand” is a synonym for however or “by contrast.”

39. To overplay your hand is to try too hard to achieve an objective, resulting in failure or complication.

40. Something that gets out of hand has gone out of control.

41. To play into someone’s hands is to be manipulated by an opponent into doing something advantageous to that person and detrimental to yourself.

42. “Put your hands up” is a command by law enforcement personnel directing someone to raise their hands so that they are in clear view and not likely to reach for a weapon.

43. To raise one’s hand is to lift an arm to indicate that one wishes to volunteer to perform a task or respond to a question.

44. A show of hands is a display of raised hands by those in a group in favor of or opposed to a proposal.

45. To take someone by the hand is to lead or nurture them.

46. To take the law into your own hands is to seek to right or avenge a wrong yourself rather than appeal to law enforcement for assistance.

47. To throw your hands up is to figuratively acknowledge defeat or frustration.

48. To be underhanded is to be deceitful.

49. To wash your hands of something is to absolve yourself of responsibility.

50. To say “When one hand washes the other” (the implied conclusion to the phrase is “and together they wash the face”) is to suggest that cooperation encourages success.

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11 Responses to “50 Handy Expressions About Hands”

  • AnWulf

    “On the other hand” is brooked so much that it has it’s own shortening: OTOH.

  • Sherry

    If something is second-hand, it is used.

  • Roberta B.

    49. to wash your hands of responsibility – Biblical reference of a symbolic act by Pontius Pilate to absolve himself of the ultimate treatment of Jesus.

    50. one hand washes the other…..to encourage success…..is frequently used to represent collusion or something underhanded.

  • Donna Boyle

    Why would you suggest all these hackneyed expressions? One would think you’d work to offer alternative expressions to these worn cliches.

  • Nann Dunne

    51. To say “my hands are tied” means an inability to perform the requested or referred to action.

    I would add to #28: When you tell someone you have to hand it to them, you’re giving them a compliment on their good judgment or ability.

  • Nann Dunne

    Whoops! Forgot to thank you on your continual assistance to writers and speakers. I enjoy – and appreciate – the fruits of your labor. <g.

  • Terry McNeil

    Marc

    Have to hand it to you this is a handy list (sic) you put together.

    Other additions include:

    Lay your hands on me.

    Farmhand

    Gotta hand it to you,

    And the best for last from this poor boy. “hand-me-downs”

    Good fun, thanks.

    Terry

  • Ken Levin

    Other hand-based words or expressions:

    51) To sit on one’s hands…

    52) To keep one’s hand in.

    53) To wring one’s hands

    54) Even-handed

    55) Hands off

    56) Hand-cuffed

    57) Back-handed

    58) Hands-free

    59) Left-handed compliment

    60) Handsome (?)

    61) Handle (?)

    62) Handy (?)

    (Sorry if I included ones already mentioned, and for not taking the time to define them.)

  • Ken K

    Fortune’s hand will be handy when one lives from hand to mouth.

  • Kathryn

    Terry McNeil adds, without definition “lay your hands on me”–which may be the same as this one. However. . .

    The laying-on of hands: a Christian religious practice of invoking the holy spirit in various contexts (baptism, ordination, healing); it was rooted in a Jewish tradition, but the use of the phrase in English today is probably more commonly a reference to the Christian practice.

    And, for Donna Boyle–while your comment is well taken, there is nonetheless a valuable purpose to be served by providing a gloss on phrases that can be used–judiciously–to avoid unnecessary exposition. A work composed largely of such phrases would be tedious. . .but every work relies, to a degree, on the use of material which is not entirely new (um. . .you know–words?); so “hackneyed” (a hackneyed word image for “overused”) words can be serviceable, if treated carefully, and with respect. Thank you to Marc, for offering this compendium of a number of undoubtedly overused images–to help writers avoid misusing them, at the very least!

  • John Vonderlin

    I was surprised not see “holding hands,” or hand-holding” used to describe an early stage of an affectionate relationship. “To hold one’s hand” is to mentor or guide or instruct someone diligently through a process or situation. “Holding out a hand,” is to offer succor or aid.
    More obscure or less used might be “hands behind your back” the law enforcement-related command or “hand behind your back” indicating deceptive hiding of something. “Keep your hands above the covers,” the anti-onanism command and “hands-in-pockets” a reference to slouching shiftlessness also jump to mind. “Handheld” as in the opposite of a “handsfree” device is another one.
    I’m sure there’s more, but I only drifted through here and need to go. Before doing so, I’d like to commend Kathryn for an effective and thorough literary backhand above. I came here looking for variations of wordplay of the word “hand” as inspirations for my newest pieces of benthic marine debris art. I love to employ whimsy, alliteration, bad puns, topical references or allusions in my piece’s themes and names. My art supplies are more then 50,000 pieces of non-buoyant marine debris (sinksam) regurgitated by a unique phenomena known as Neptune’s Vomitorium and collected by me during hundreds of visits over the last decade. In this case I’m trying to think of a small series of pieces that I could use my hundreds of various types of handles to create. “Handle’s Messiah” is one piece I’m contemplating, as is a large hand comprised of handles. I’m not sure if there is anything here I’ll use. But, thank you so much for spending the time to compile this list.
    Echoing Kathryn’s opinion, I’d simply add that good written dialogue should echo the way real characters would speak, not like no hi-falutin, pointy-headed, ivory-tower bookworm. Enjoy.

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