Help is at hand (Idioms with ‘hand’, Part 1)

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by Kate Woodford

Who knew how many idioms and phrases there were containing the word ‘hand’! I certainly didn’t until I started researching them. A lot are common in everyday speech and are therefore useful to learn. As there are so many, this will be the first of two posts, Part 1 and Part 2.

As you might imagine, ‘hand’ features in idioms that convey something about control and power. For example, if a situation gets out of hand, people lose control of it: Things got a bit out of hand at the party and a window was broken.

If someone says that their hands are tied, they mean that they, personally, don’t have the power to do something, usually because the rules don’t allow it: If I could allow her more time off, I would, but my hands are tied.

In UK English, if you take in hand someone who is behaving badly, you deal with them so that their behaviour improves: Their younger son is out of control – they really need to take him in hand.

A performer who has an audience in the palm of their hand, holds their attention completely because of the power of their performance: I’ve never known a performance like it. She had the audience in the palm of her hand. (The ‘palm’ is the inside part of the hand, where you hold something.)

A similar image is found in the expression to have someone eating out of your hand, meaning ‘to have them under your control, admiring you greatly’: She’s one of those teachers who has the whole class eating out of her hand.

Other ‘hand’ expressions relate to things being near or available, either literally or more figuratively. We say help is at hand, meaning that help is available if needed: Just remember that if you are struggling at all, help is at hand.

People who are on hand are present and ready to help if necessary: Our fantastic staff will be on hand to answer any queries you may have. In UK English, if you have an object to hand, you have it near you: I didn’t have a pen to hand so I couldn’t write down the number.

To lay/get your hands on something is to manage to find it: Where have all the scissors gone? I can never lay my hands on a pair when I need them!

The job/matter in hand (UK)/the job/matter at hand (US) is the task or job that you are doing or talking about at the time: Anyway, we’ll deal with that later. For now, shall we concentrate on the job in hand?

I’ll leave you with a ‘hand’ idiom which I feel sure must exist in other languages. If you know a place like the back of your hand, you have a very good and detailed knowledge of it: I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for fifty years. I know it like the back of my hand.

40 thoughts on “Help is at hand (Idioms with ‘hand’, Part 1)

  1. Dieter Walz

    Hi Kate,

    again another interesting column.

    Using our hands to get and hold control over things
    we are dealing with seems to me very natural to human
    beings. Certainly the development of our manual skills
    make a big deal of our biological process of becoming
    modern ‘homo sapiens’.

    Your collection of idioms is very helpful.

    Thanks for it.

    Dieter Walz, Frankfurt

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you, Dieter – that’s kind! And yes, absolutely, for the reason you give, it’s no great surprise that hands feature in so many phrases. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  2. Reza

    Interestingly, in Persian, there is an idiom “ to know something like the palm of your hand” which means pretty much the same as the one in English.

      1. I love your suggestions, specially the one in regards to how peas can have Manny benefits I one cares about there health. I’d love to know, do you think if they are as good for you as we think they are, how valuable do you feel such a thing is? “could you put a price on that!”

  3. b.fuchs@tlt-turbo.com

    Hi Kate,

    I love your blog posts and the fact that every post has a topic helps me a lot when doing research for my translations.

    In German, if you know a place like the back of your hand, you say that you “know it like the pocket of you waistcoat”.

    Thank you su much for writing these blog posts
    Betty

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Betty! I’m thrilled you find my posts useful – thank you! That’s a lovely expression (like the pocket of your waistcoat) and harks back very charmingly to another era! Best wishes from Cambridge.

  4. Maryem Salama

    Somehow your blog reminded me of this sweet Lebanese song
    Woe is me! I caused the bird to fly away.
    From my own hand, the bird flew away.
    My master, I made it flown away when I was distant from it.
    It has grown accustomed to eating from my hand. And when it felt hungry, the bird flew.
    Oh my bird, the same palm you had grown up on it you had flown away from it.

  5. Sevinch

    Thank you Miss Kate Woodford. That’s one of the wonderful post I liked. In also Uzbek language, idioms like gets out of hand and hand are tied have almost the same meaning as in English

  6. Muhammad Imran Sharif

    Dear Mam,
    Is it correct to write need your hand to resolve this issue. Very often I write in my official emails.

  7. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Kate, for your awesome posts! I continue to compare English and Russian and if you know someting like the back of your hand you say you know it like all your fingers.

  8. Alexei Stoyanovsky

    Hi Kate,

    thanks for sharing this lesson in such a nice way! Even though your tricky country change your mind re the EU, you guys left your language behind over here in mainland Europe. 🙂 More and more Europeans as well half-Europeans 🙂 use it for communication. Even us from Slavic nations. I recall that upon the collapse of the USSR only very few among fellow-citizens behind the iron curtain were fluent in English… Those days are gone! To hear English is no more a surprise. But the idioms are still missing. Or expressed improperly (thru literal word by word translation) …Feels like missing oil while shifting gears… 🙁
    It was so interesting to read all the comments to get an idea of how others express when they know the place well enough! 🙂 My turn to speak up for Ukraine ): “I know the place (as well) as (i know) my own 5 fingers”

    Great job! Thanks again!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Alexei! That’s a lovely message – thanks! We have a few ‘palm of the hand’ equivalents on this thread but no other ‘five fingers’! By the way, we often feature idioms on this blog so do keep checking in. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  9. Jablonski Hannah

    Dear Kate Woodford, Reading what it inspired to Muhammad Imran Sharif, brought to my mind that in English, a person in need of a helpful hand, may ask another person “–Will you give me a hand, please?”; (maybe, kindly say if it’s not correct). In French, & very coloquial, it is “–Me donneras-tu un coup de main?”, literally, “a stroke of hand”. Your ‘Help is at hand’ entry (& Dieter Walz comment) also brings to my mind that in time of barrier measures (“hands tied”), a selection of such concept proves the strength of words. It suggests a touch, doesn’t it? Now, 6 feet (or 8 feet or 1600 miles) away, I am heartily expressing that I am “holding you in the palm of my hand”.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you for that lovely message! Yes, absolutely, you could ask someone for help by asking them to give you a hand. I should probably have included it, so thank you! Best wishes from Cambridge.

  10. Nina

    Thanks a lot for this amazing post!
    By the way, in Ukrainian there is an idiom ‘to know something like your own five fingers’ which also means to have a very good and detailed knowledge of something.

    1. Kate Woodford

      You’re welcome, Nina! I’m enjoying hearing about all these ‘know something like’ variants! Best wishes from Cambridge.

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