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.