50 Idioms About Arms, Hands, and Fingers

By Mark Nichol

Many idioms referring to human behavior are based on analogies to parts of the body, especially arms, hands, and fingers. Here are explanations of many of the most common expressions.

1. “All hands on deck,” from nautical terminology, means that a circumstance requires everyone’s attendance or attention.
2. One who is all thumbs is clumsy (as if one had thumbs in place of fingers and is therefore not dexterous).
3. To have something at hand is to have it accessible or nearby.
4. To be hand in hand is to be in close association.
5. A backhanded compliment is one that explicitly or implicitly denigrates the recipient.
6. To be in good (or safe) hands is to be in a secure position.
7. To be on hand is to be in attendance or available in case of need.
8. To bite the hand that feeds you is to attack or reject someone who has helped you.
9. “The devil makes work for idle hands” means that those who do not have enough to occupy them are susceptible to risking illicit behavior.
10. To say that someone did not or would not lift a finger is to criticize the person for failing to assist.
11. “Elbow grease” refers to influence that will enable something to occur that would otherwise be hindered or stalled.
12. Elbow room is space to be free to live the way one wants to or engage in activities as one wishes.
13. To finger someone is to identify someone, especially a perpetrator of a crime or someone who is to blame for doing something wrong.
14. To experience something at first hand (or firsthand) is to experience it directly rather than to merely become aware of it through an intermediary.
15. To force someone’s hand is to maneuver so that someone is compelled to act prematurely or reveal his or her intentions.
16. To give someone a free hand is to allow that person autonomy.
17. “Five-finger discount” is a euphemism for stealing, especially shoplifting.
18. To gain the upper hand is to become dominant or victorious.
19. To get one’s fingers burned is to experience a painful lesson, often about issues such as trust in interpersonal relationships.
20. To get one’s hands dirty it to directly engage in an activity that may not be appealing, rather than leave it to others, or to become involved in illicit activity.
21–22. To give one’s right arm (to right-handed people, the more useful one) or an arm and a leg is to offer a significant sacrifice to obtain a desired result.
23. To go hand in glove means to be in close agreement or in a close relationship.
24. To hand it to someone is to acknowledge someone’s accomplishment.
25. To hand something to someone on a plate or a platter means to make something easy for someone.
26. To hang on by one’s fingernails is to barely manage to cope with something.
27. To have a finger in every pie (or many pies) is to be involved in many activities or projects
28. To have one’s finger on the pulse of something is to be acutely aware of its condition or status.
29. To have one’s hands full it to be busy or too busy to take on other activities.
30. Something done with a heavy hand is done excessively and/or oppressively.
31. A reference to an iron fist (or iron hand) in a velvet glove is to authoritarian behavior concealed behind a facade of benevolence.
32. To keep someone at arm’s length is to maintain emotional and/or physical distance from someone who is a bad influence or may otherwise cause harm.
33. To keep one’s fingers crossed is to wish for good luck.
34. To know something like the back of one’s hand is to be intimately or thoroughly familiar with it.
35. When the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, one entity associated with another is unaware of the second entity’s actions or intentions.
36. To lend a hand means to help.
37. To live from hand to mouth is to live on a subsistence level, with no cushion of comfort.
38. When something gets out of hand, it is out of control.
39. The long arm of the law is the influence of law enforcement, which can be more far reaching in time or space than one expects.
40. “On the other hand” means “alternatively.”
41. To overplay one’s hand is to be overconfident.
42. To play into someone’s hands is to engage in activity or behavior that makes one vulnerable to another person’s manipulation.
43. A show of hands is a literal or figurative assessment or vote to determine support for or opposition to an intended course of action or agreement or disagreement with an opinion.
44. To stick out like a sore thumb is to be conspicuous.
45. To take the law into one’s own hands is to seek justice or retribution instead of obtaining assistance through law enforcement or legal procedures.
46. “Thumbs up” refers to the gesture of approval.
47. To be under someone’s thumb is to be subject to someone else’s influence.
48. To be up in arms is to be indignant or agitated about a wrong done to oneself and/or others.
49. To wash one’s hands of something is to decide that one no longer wants to be considered responsible for an action or policy that one does not have control over.
50. To work one’s fingers to the bone is suggest that one’s fingers have been stripped of flesh from the exertion.

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13 Responses to “50 Idioms About Arms, Hands, and Fingers”

  • Randy Parrish

    Number 48 in the list “50 Idioms About Arms, Hands, and Fingers” isn’t really a good candidate for the list, is it? The reference to “arms” in “up in arms” is a reference to weaponry. Doesn’t that context of arm/arms have a different etymological basis than “arm” the body part?

  • Cynthia

    Hi,
    I subscribe to your daily writing tips and enjoy them very much.

    “Elbow grease” can also mean physical work that is needed to get something done. Like when your working on something difficult, and someone tells you to “put some elbow grease to it”.

    When I think of influence that gets something done that may be stalled, “greasing someone’s palm” – usually with money – comes to mind.

    Thanks for the great post.
    Cynthia

  • Andrew Paschetto

    Dear Daily Writing Tips Editors,

    One of my favorite hand idioms is “to have in-hand”, as in to have command of a skill or situation. It comes from the days of horse drawn coaches, when a driver’s operating level was indicated by the number of horses on his team, as in a six-in-hand driver. Thus, having something in-hand means a good deal more than a mere grab.

  • thebluebird11

    Mark, I’m relieved that you didn’t put the phrase “as a rule of thumb” in there…thank you for not perpetuating the use of that phrase, especially since “as a rule” will suffice.

  • Curtis

    You missed a couple others (at least).

    “Give the finger” — we all know what that means.

    “High-handed” — to be presumptuous, arbitrary, or overbearing.

    “Hand over fist” (no returns from Dogpile search (!)) — speedily; increasingly.

    “Hand and foot” — to be hindered (tied hand and foot) OR to be attended to in a servile manner (waited on hand and foot).

    You should do a list like this about feet.

  • thebluebird11

    @ Curtis: Nice additions.
    Some of my own, and I might yet think of more:
    – Open-handed (meaning generous, giving).
    – Backhand (a tennis stroke, or to smack someone with the back of one’s hand)
    – Right-hand [man/woman] = one’s trusted or best assistant, also used as “S/he is my right hand.”
    – Handy (skilled using one’s hands; easy-to-reach, convenient)
    – Open arms (welcoming)
    – To know something as well as one knows the back of one’s hand (to know very well)

  • Roberta B.

    Fun list!
    @thebluebird11 So, what would be wrong with “rule of thumb?” It’s an estimate or conventional standard relative to the circumstances. Even though everyone’s thumb size is not the same, this expression represents a similar reference point. “Rule of thumb” would not have the same meaning as “a Rule” which represents a more fixed or formally adopted standard.

  • thebluebird11

    @Roberta, re: Rule of thumb:
    I refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thumb: “It is often claimed that the term’s etymological origin lies in a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife. British common law before the reign of Charles II permitted a man to give his wife ‘moderate correction,’ but no ‘rule of thumb’ (whether called by this name or not) has ever been the law in England. Nonetheless, belief in the existence of a ‘rule of thumb’ law to excuse spousal abuse can be traced as far back as 1782…” Whether this is the true origin of the phrase or this is “myth,” it appears to have enough substantiation to make it a phrase worth avoiding, IMHO. If you think that “as a rule” does not mean the same thing, then substitute “as a general rule,” or something similar, but leave out the wife-beating undertones. That is just my feeling. Every time I hear someone say “as a rule of thumb,” it makes me uncomfortable, even though I am sure they don’t realize what they’re saying.

  • Roberta B.

    @theblubird11 Well, I’d never heard of that. So, I read the Wikipedia entry you referred to. Even from that it sounds to me like 18th or 19th century satire that someone might have taken seriously. However, now I see the point of your previous comment.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Randy Parrish: You are absolutely correct:
    “Doesn’t that context of arm/arms have a different etymological basis than ‘arm’, the body part?”

    “Arms” is a shortening of “armaments”.
    “Armed” is a shortening of “having armaments”.
    I am continually amazed by the people who have no knowledge that certain words are contractions or abbreviations of others. It also never dawns on them that such might be the case.
    For example “car” is a shortening of “carriage” and “plane” is a shortening of “airplane”.

    Also, in compound words such as “chairman”, “man” is a shortening of “human being”. Furthermore, in Anglo-Saxon and in Modern German, “man” is a special pronoun that means “human being”, “someone”, or even “they”. “Man” is always grammatically singular, but it can be used with a plural meaning. It depends on the context.

    For example, “Man hat alles gegessen,” means “Someone has eaten everything up” or “They have eaten everything up.” If you arrived at a party a little late, and all of the food was gone already, you could say, “Man hat alles gegessen.” That could have been a party that was attended entirely by hungry women, or by a mixed group, or by all men. The word “man” does not have anything to do with sex.
    Paying attention to the roots of words is just so far beyond so many speakers of English now**.

    In contrast, “der Mann” is definitely male, and “die Frau” is definitely female. Also, “man” and “Mann” have somewhat different pronounciations. In English, we have lost that, and pairs of words like “Herman” and “Hermann” sound exactly the same to us.
    In English, we have also lost the difference in sound of “berg” and “burg”. In German, the final syllables of “Hamburg” and “Heidelberg” really sound different. The same goes for other place names like Brandenberg, Nuremberg, Hammelburg, Strassburg, Regensburg, and Freiburg.

    I love the name Freiburg because it is a compound of the word for “free” and the word for “city”. I also want to visit Regensburg, Bavaria, because it was not bombed during World War II, and it has an excellent collection of German architecture that dates all the way back to late Medieval times. For this reason, the center of Regensburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    As we should know, these places were practically flattened during World War II: Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Dresden, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Kiel, Munich, Nuremberg, Schweinfurt…
    The Royal Air Force (beginning in 1940), the U.S. Army Air Forces (beginning in 1942), and the Royal Canadian Air Force spent years trying to knock Nazi Germany out of the war by the use of air power, but Hitler and his criminal regime refused to surrender no matter how much German got bombed and burned.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11:
    There is a WHALE of a lot of difference between “as a rule of thumb” and “as a rule”. Really, you need to expend some effort in learning about technology before you make silly comments. Do bury your prejudices somewhere else.

    Another way of stating it is: There is a DOUBLE HANDFUL of difference between “as a rule of thumb” and “as a rule”.

    Architects, engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists, technologists, and even mathematicians use rules of thumb all the time.
    These are ways of producing ESTIMATES of things before bothering to proceed further. These are also ways of figuring out starting points, especially in solving problems by iteration.

    If reliable rules of thumb suggest that some device, building, or airplane would cost $15,000,000,000 apiece, then it is usually a good idea not to procede further. Once again, go bury your prejudices about useful words and pharases somewhere.

    D.A.W.

  • bramsay

    As I have come to understand it: in #11 ‘grease’ is the term for influence; ‘elbow grease’ is as defined by Cynthia in post 2.

    (D.A.W. think! Couldn’t you have found a nicer way to say what you had to say?)

    wbr

  • Julie the Jarhead

    I use ‘rule of thumb’ whenever I get the chance.

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