Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can You Give Me A Hand?

You have to hand it to “hand”: It’s a handy word — it handles multiple tasks, both literal and figurative.

“She has firsthand experience with that.”

“We’ve experienced that firsthand.”

Perhaps you are raling about a card game, for example — “I won the first hand and lost all the rest” — or a clock part — “The second hand isn’t moving”. By the way - have you ever noticed that the third hand on a clock or watch is the second hand?

A handyman usually uses tools to get the job done. The word “hand” is handy with tools, too — prepositions, for example.

Baseball pitchers throw “overhand” or, interestingly, “sidearm.” Softball pitchers throw “underhand.” But either kind of pitcher — or anyone else, for that matter — can be “underhanded” — “secret, sly, deceitful, etc.”

Baseball and softball players can be “right-handed” or “left-handed.” They actually use both hands, but these terms indicate which hand they throw with. Batters are left-handed or right-handed, too, except for “switch-hitters,” who can hit either way. In rare instances, batters can be “cross-handed” — usually when starting to learn the game.

Seemingly reflecting a cultural prejudice against left-handers that’s worth further examination (eventually), the adjective “right-hand” also can mean “most helpful or reliable,” as in, “He’s my right-hand man.”

But whether you’re “right-handed” or “left-handed,” you’re using the right hand for you.

“Backhand” and “forehand” are the two basic strokes in tennis. “Backhand” is also a way to catch a baseball, and it’s the term for handwriting “that slants backward, up to the left.”

And “backhanded” also means “expressing or expressed in an indirect or sarcastic way; not sincere; equivocal,” as in “a backhanded compliment.”

Less common is “forehanded,” which has two principal uses other than as a synonym for “forehand”:

“Looking ahead to, or making provision for, the future; thrifty; prudent” and “well-to-do; well-off; prosperous.”

In “forehanded,” thriftiness and prosperity go hand in hand.

Appropriately enough, things got out of hand for a while there, but I’m ready to return to the task at hand.

“Handwriting” generally refers to “longhand,” whereas “shorthand” is “any system of speed writing using quickly made symbols to represent letters, words and phrases.”

But to be “shorthanded” is to be light on workers or helpers needed for a particular chore.

And that’s not the same as “light-handed,” which means either “having a light, delicate touch” or “having little to carry.”

On the other hand, “heavy-handed” not only means not having a light touch; it’s also “clumsy or tactless” or, even heavier, “cruel, oppressive or tyrannical.”

In the former sense — “graceless, inept” — “heavy-handed” sounds a lot like “ham-handed.” Apparently, “ham-handed” originally referred to unusually large hands, resembling hams.

The British prefer to call it “ham-fisted.”

A person having a problem says to another person, “Hey, can you give me a hand?” And instead of offering to help, the other person applauds.

To avoid this misunderstanding, try asking, “Can you lend me a hand?” Either is idiomatically OK, but the latter has a more limited application. Plus there’s the added benefit of indicating temporary assistance (lending) rather than permanent (giving).

In either case, of course, no actual hand will change hands. That’s the charm of idiom: It’s not literal, it’s figurative.

Fortunately, most people in the above situation are willing to lend a hand. But there are some who won’t lift a hand or even lift a finger — except maybe the middle finger.

The adjective “handy” has four principal meanings: “easily reached,” “easily used,” “easily managed or handled” (in reference to a ship, for example) and “clever with the hands.” For a synonym, Webster’s offers “dexterous.”

“Dexterous” and the noun “dexterity” can be applied not only to hands but also the whole body and even the mind. The words are descended from the Latin “dexter,” meaning “right, to the right.”

Interestingly, the Latin word for the other side or direction, “left-hand,” is “sinister.” Nowadays, “sinister” is the “bad side.” It can mean “threatening harm, evil or misfortune,” “wicked, evil or dishonest, especially in some dark, mysterious way” and “disastrous.”

However, the left side was originally the good side. Here’s what happened, according to Webster’s:

Early Roman fortunetellers would face south, putting the lucky side (east) to the left. Then the Greeks came along, and their prophets faced north, putting the lucky side on the right. The later Romans adopted the Greek point of view.

With apologies to Einstein, this is a very special theory of relativity.

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