Many Handy 'Hand' Expressions

25 May 2024

And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

Every day, we do countless things with our hands. So, it's not surprising that we have many "hand" expressions that describe how we do something. These hand expressions could be called handy ... meaning they are useful.

When we do something with our bare hands, we do it on our own, usually with much effort. When we use this expression, we are expressing pride in something we have done.

FILE - Business team putting hands together on top of each other. (Prostock-studio via Adobe Stock)
FILE - Business team putting hands together on top of each other. (Prostock-studio via Adobe Stock)

For example, let's say I decided to build my own gardening shed -- a small outdoor building for gardening supplies. It was hard work and took me days to finish. But at the end of the project, I could proudly say that I built it with my own bare hands.

Feeling proud and finishing a big project go hand in hand. They go together!

Firm hand = strict

Let's say you are asked to lead a project. You want it to be successful. You want it to be on time and on budget. So, you lead with a firm hand. If you lead with a firm hand, you are strict. You follow all the rules closely. You don't let jokes or laziness affect your team's progress. Teachers can teach with a firm hand. And parents can parent with a firm hand, too. Having a firm hand and being strict go hand in hand.

Heavy hand = oppressive

A firm hand is not the same as a heavy hand. If a person or organization has a heavy hand, they use a lot of force or power to control people and events. A heavy hand is often considered a bad thing. When you deal with a situation with a heavy hand, you could be seen as oppressive. Someone who is heavy-handed is severe or harsh when dealing with others or when dealing with a situation.

Sometimes we call this an iron hand or even an iron fist. A fist is a closed hand that is used for hitting.

High-handed = arrogant & condescending

Now, what kind of person has a high hand? Someone who has a high hand is domineering. They like to be in control. They are bossy.

Sometimes we use the adjective high-handed.

High-handed people do not consider the rights, concerns, thoughts, or feelings of others. They look down on people. In other words, they are arrogant and condescending.

Hand expressions can also describe our involvement in a situation. Let's look at a couple examples.

A friend of yours asks you to find a manager for her company. But you don't know anyone who fits the job description. So, you don't suggest anyone. You don't have a hand in the selection. If you have a hand in something, you have helped to make it happen.

Your friend was able to find someone for the job through another person – someone you know. Let's call him Bob. You know Bob, and you don't trust Bob. So, you warn your friend. But they don't take the warning seriously. In the end, Bob is a terrible choice. He steals a lot of money from your friend's company. Your friend is furious! And you feel bad.

Clean hands = innocent

But in this matter, your hands are clean. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you tried to warn your friend. We use this expression to state innocence in a bad situation.

Here's another example. Let's say you are babysitting some children. They want to make a cake. And they make a total mess in the kitchen. Flour, sugar, and broken eggs are everywhere. When their parents come home and see the mess, you can say you did not have a hand in it. The kids did it all. All you did was turn on the oven.

Maybe these kids do this every time you watch them. You are tired of it – even though they do make tasty cake. So, you throw your hands up! When you throw your hands up, you are tired of fighting something. It is a sign that you give up.

A good word that describes this feeling is exasperation. People who are exasperated are tired of something, and they often throw their hands in the air.

And that's the end of this Words and Their Stories. Until next time, I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

bare -adj. lacking clothing

pride -n. reasonable self-esteem : confidence and satisfaction in oneself

strict -adj. severe in discipline

oppressive -adj. cruel or harsh without just cause

harsh -adj. making many or difficult demands

domineering -adj. inclined to exercise arbitrary and overbearing control over others

arrogant -adj. showing an offensive attitude of superiority

condescending -adj. showing or characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others

furious -adj. exhibiting anger

mess -n. a disordered, untidy, offensive, or unpleasant state or condition

exasperated -v. having or showing strong feelings of irritation or annoyance : exasperation -n