Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

language

 

All hands on deck! This coming Wednesday we’ll celebrate World Handshake Day, which spotlights one of the most common greetings between two people. Handshakes have been used since at least the second century B.C. as a gesture of peace showing that the two hands hold no weapons. 

In The Social Conquest of the Earth, the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson explains the spectacular success of human beings in mastering our planet. Central to achieving global dominance is our acquisition and use of “grasping hands tipped with soft spatulate fingers.” Our hands, with their flexible digits and opposable thumbs, help us to size up and manipulate the world around us. No wonder, then, that hands leave their fingerprints all over the words and phrases that we speak and hear and write and read every day.

President Harry Truman loved to tell a joke about the dismal science of economics: “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand . . . on the other hand.’ Just give me a one-handed economist!” Apparently, Truman rejected out-of-hand, two-handed economists whose hands were tied, even as they served him hand and foot. Talk about a left-handed compliment. You really have to give a hand to and hand it to Mr. Truman.

I always try to be even-handed, not highhanded, underhanded, heavy-handed or hamfisted in my approach to writing. I don’t want to handcuff you or force my hand or reject your feelings out of hand. Please give me a free hand to show my hand and lend a hand by presenting a handy dandy, hand-picked topic of which I have firsthand knowledge and know like the back of my hand. It’s simply putty in my hands.

Now open a handbook, a manual of manual words and hand-picked expressions that leave our language anything but shorthanded. Some words with hand in them go hand in glove with handedness while others, such as handsome, which originally meant “easy to handle,” are more oblique. In the 14th century a game was played involving the passing of money by hand into a cap held by an umpire. The game came to be called hand i’ cap (“hand in cap”), whence our word handicap.

Don’t wring your hands and throw up your hands about discovering manual word origins. Many of our common words play right into our hands by deriving from manus, the Latin word for “hand”: manacle, maneuver, manicure, manipulate, manual, manufacture, manumit, manuscript and emancipate (“to release one’s hands from”). The etymology of other handy words is not so evident:

Today’s chiropodists treat problems with feet, but the Greek root chir means “hand.” Before specialization, chiropodists cared for both hands and feet. That same Greek root, chir, “hand,” along with ergon, “work,” forms the word surgeon, one who works with his or her hands.

You may well know that a southpaw is a slang term for a left-handed person, but do you know why? The answer can be found in our great American pastime, baseball. Most early baseball diamonds were laid out with the pitcher’s mound to the east of home plate. With the westward orientation of home plate the batter wouldn’t have to battle the afternoon sun in his eyes. As a result, as a right-handed pitcher wound up, he faced north — and a left-handed pitcher south. South + paw (“hand”) = southpaw.

The hand gains a handhold in many of our handpicked folk sayings: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Many hands make light work.” “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

And hands reach out from many of many intriguing expressions that serve us hand and foot:

  • Caught red-handed means apprehended with blood on one’s hands.
  • To win hands down refers to jockeys who have a comfortable lead in a race. They don’t need to lift their hands to prod the horse, so they let their hands drop.
  • Hand over fist was originally a seafaring term referring to the hand-over-hand movements made by an old hand during rapid ascent into the rigging of a sailing ship.
  • To wash one’s hand of the matter alludes to Pontius Pilate’s statement in the Book of Matthew that Christ’s death was out of his hands because his hands were tied.

And remember that if you want a helping hand, just look at the end of your arm.