Alternative Meanings for “Hand” and Names of Its Parts

By Mark Nichol

The human hand is such a quintessential element of our anatomy — we wouldn’t be human without ours (specifically, without our prehensile thumbs) — that we have applied the word to many literal and figurative senses other than the physiological one, as well as a wealth of idiomatic phrases (too many to list here). Here’s a discussion of alternative meanings of hand, as well as those for its parts.

Hand can refer to participation or an offer of assistance, or it denotes a round of applause. It applies to a body part or a component of an object resembling a hand, and a symbol resembling a hand with an outstretched index finger is called a hand, or an index.

An aspect, direction, or side is called a hand; on the other hand, the word also refers to the concept of control, possession, or supervision. One can give one’s hand as a pledge (usually, in reference to marriage), and one’s signature or handwriting is called one’s hand. The word denotes ability or skill, or interest or participation or a significant role.

In card or other games, hand refers to the cards or game pieces held, to a round in a game, or to a player in a game; by figurative extension, it means “the strength of one’s position.” In the realm of a rougher game, pugilistics (boxing), or in fighting in general, hand identifies a punch.

The creator or producer of a work might be acknowledged as a hand; it could also reference someone with knowledge of or skill in a specific topic, or handiwork or workmanship. The word also applies, more mundanely, to an employee or worker, especially a laborer, or a member of a ship’s crew (or the figurative equivalent). In a sense more akin to tactile connotations, hand describes the feel of a material.

Finger, too, has other meanings, including something resembling a finger in shape or function, or a measurement equivalent to the general width of a finger. As a verb, it means to identify or to touch, to extend as a finger would be extended, or to play music using one’s fingers. Likewise, thumb applies to something with a thumblike appearance, and, as a verb, it means “to leaf through a book or to cause wear by doing so,” or “to hitchhike or to signal for a ride by holding out one’s thumb.”

A knuckle, too, is something that looks like a joint in a bodily appendage (or, in the case of a cut of meat, is that anatomical part from livestock), including a weapon worn on the knuckles and more commonly called brass knuckles. Knuckle can also refer to a part of a hinge or to a structural component with the appearance of a knuckle. To knuckle is to press or rub with one’s knuckles.

Palm extends to objects that might remind one of that part of the hand; the palm tree derives its name from resemblance of the fan-shaped leaves to a hand. A palm is also the act of palming; to palm is to conceal with one’s hand or to stealthily give or take something, or, by extension, to commit fraud. It also means to touch with one’s palm, as in the basketball violation of resting a ball in one’s hand during dribbling.

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10 Responses to “Alternative Meanings for “Hand” and Names of Its Parts”

  • Michael

    In “Alternative meanings for hand” I saw the use of “prehensile thumbs.” I had never seen prehensile used to describe our thumbs before, so I looked it up. Although the use of the word fits the definition’s sense of the ability to grasp, it still seemed wrong to me. Maybe it’s because the ability to grasp isn’t what sets the thumb apart from the rest of our digits as they can all grasp. But maybe it’s just me outside my comfort zone.

  • Jean Kearsley

    Michael ~

    It’s not the prehensile quality of the thumb which sets it apart from the rest of the digits. Rather, it’s the prehensile — and, more to the point, the opposable — nature of the thumb which sets us apart from less dextrously gifted creatures. While a racoon may be able to grasp food with its paw, that’s a far cry from the baker’s dozen of different precision grips which the human thumb and fingers together can effect.

    Mark ~

    I know the subject matter of this installment refers specifically to alternative meanings for the hand’s parts. However, from the point of view of creative expression, it’s the metaphorical uses of the terms that are the more interesting … such as phrases like “to knuckle down” or “knuckle under,” or to “give a hand up.” How about a companion piece which explores all these expressions?

  • Mary

    ‘Hand’ also serves as the measurement of height for a horse. One hand is about four inches, the approximate width of a human hand.

  • Elizabeth Roberts

    As noted, the word “hand” can be used for measurements. One type of measurement not mentioned is the use of “hand” to measure how tall a horse is…from the hoof to the top of the shoulder. Thus, a horse might be identified as 12 or even 15 hands high.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I also object to “prehensile” in reference to thumbs. Prehensile refers to the tails of certain monkeys of the New World and to the trunks of elephants. The thumbs of human beings and primates are “opposible” or “opposing” because they can be rotated to touch the bottoms of the fingertips. Hence they can form a grip of objects.

    I do see this mistake with words all the time nowadays. People just pull words out of their minds at random without regard to their true meanings, and hence they make whoppers of mistakes.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Anyone who writes of the uses of the of the word “knuckle” but omits “knucle under” and “knucklehead” has made serious omissions.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Palming the basketball is a perfectly reasonable and legal thing to do in a game such as when dunking the ball into the goal with one hand.
    Also, a player, especially a tall one, can stand on one spot while palming the ball and holding it aloft and out of reach of the defense. The player is watching developments and deciding what to do: to pass the ball; to shoot the ball; or to start dribbling the ball.
    Associating palming the ball with illegal moves is quite fallacious.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “To finger” someone is to arrest or implicate someone for a crime. It is odd that this meaning was omitted.
    This usage is the same in English or in German because the German noun for finger is “Finger”. The German verb is “fingern”. Interestingly, the pronunciation is somewhat different because the German noun is divided into syllables as “Fing-er” instead of “fin-ger”.

    The German word for hand is “Hand”, also. These words came into English via Anglo-Saxon-Jute a long time ago.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mistake: I meant to type “knuckle under”. Sorry.

    There is also the term “knuckle down” which is something that all “knuckleheads” need to do! Please do so.
    D.A.W.

  • Dave Ames

    A Hand can also be used to describe the military leader of a realm. He was the Hand of Camelot. In that case its a title more than a descriptor of duties.

    A knuckle is also a term used in S.O.N.A.R. to describe the release of a blast of air from a torpedo tube in an attempt to fool the sonar operator into following the wrong target. There are also other devices that have been developed to accomplish similar results without the accompanying sound of a torpedo door sliding open. See Pillenwerfwer as an examples sonar decoys.

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