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shameless pleading

Hawk from a handsaw

Not a clue.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard the saying “can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” or sometimes “can’t tell…,” but I have no idea what the saying means. Can you help? — Allan Pratt.

Absolutely, no problemo. But first, two questions of my own. One, have you actually heard someone say that phrase aloud (as opposed to reading it somewhere)? Secondly, if the answer is “yes,” where in the world do you live? I’d give my eyeteeth to live among people who actually use phrases like that. I was searching on Google News just now to see if any publications had used the phrase lately, and while only a few had in the past couple of decades, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it seems that nearly everyone knew the phrase. By the way, assuming that at some point in the future someone is going to invent a working time machine, why can’t I buy one now?

Meanwhile, back at your question, “to know a hawk from a handsaw” means to be able to correctly perceive reality, to be able to tell things apart, to generally know what’s going on and, at a minimum, not to be nuts. It comes from Shakespeare’s 1604 play “Hamlet,” Act II, Scene 2. Hamlet, who has been acting more than a bit loopy, gets into a conversation with the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the course of which he hints that his apparent madness may be a tactical pose he adopts at specific times, and not true dementia, saying “I am but mad North North west; when the wind is Southerly, I knowe a Hauke, from a hand saw.”

There is now apparently general agreement that the “hand saw” in that line was originally “heronshaw,” a dialectical English form of “heron,” meaning that Hamlet was contrasting two types of birds, rather than a bird and a carpentry tool. It’s also possible that he meant “heron” to symbolize the prey of a hawk, as he had, at this point in the conversation, figured out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his childhood friends, had been corrupted to his detriment by his murderous uncle.

Despite its apparent genesis as a typographical error, “to know a hawk from a hand saw” gained wide currency almost immediately as an idiom meaning “wide-awake, aware and competent” (“He’s a pretty spruce Fellow, Madam, and … knows a Hawk from a Handsaw, as the saying is,” 1677). Interestingly, Shakespeare had used the same type of metaphor in his earlier comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (“We’ll teach him to know Turtles from Jayes”), but that one didn’t catch the public imagination as “to know a hawk from a hand saw” did. Of course, the alliteration of “hawk” and “hand saw” (or “heronshaw”) didn’t hurt, and neither did the presence of “Hamlet” in the core curriculum of schools for many years.

The underlying sense of “to know a hawk from a hand saw,” that of the ability to accurately perceive things as a measure of sanity, awareness, or being “with it,” has taken many other forms in popular culture. Such venerable phrases as “to know the time of day” (1897) or “to know what’s what” (16th century) have been joined by more colorful and jocular measuring sticks such as “to know how many beans make five” (1830), the simpler form “to know beans” (1833), and “to know one’s onions” (1922). The 20th century saw the rise of stronger phrases, most often used in the negative, including “not to know your arse from your elbow” (1930), “not to know one’s rump from a hole in the ground” (1936) and stronger variants, and not to know excrement “from Shinola,” which was a popular brand of shoe polish in the US in the first half of the 20th century. My personal favorite on this theme dials back the vulgarity and goes for the absurd: “Not to know if it’s Piccadilly or Wednesday,” Piccadilly being a street in London (“A piece of ice caught me a devil of a welt on the head and for a moment I didn’t know if it was Piccadilly or Wednesday,” 1918). I know the feeling.

17 comments to Hawk from a handsaw

  • Peter Cowen

    From G.K. Chesterton, Shakespeare and the Germans (public domain) :

    There is in Shakespeare something more godlike even than humour : something which the English call fun. The neglect of this by the Germans during the long night of German intellectual domination has produced some preposterous fruits in English, American and other criticism. 

    The notes in my school books used to be full of alternative explanations, frequently German, of such phrases as: ” I know a hawk from a hand-saw.” Grumpt says that ” hand-saw ” should obviously be heron-shaw, to put it in the same ornithological class with hawk; but Mumpt suggests that there may have been an Elizabethan tool called a hawk, to put it in the same mechanical class with hand-saw. 

    And all the time even a boy who had any flavour of literature, or any guess at the kind of man that Hamlet was supposed to be, could see at once that it was a joke. Hamlet said it as a piece of wild alliteration ; as he might have said: ” I know a baby from a blunderbuss ” ; or, ” I know a catfish from a croquet-hoop.” 

    By a deep and dry study of the million exaggerations, inconsistencies and ignorances of Shakespeare they build up a sort of rampart round the unfortunate poet to defend him from his real admirers ; for the sulky Ben Jonson had far more genuine sympathy with Shakespeare than the world-patronising Goethe.

    http://www.oldandsold.com/articles11/soldiers-8.shtml

  • Candy Woodgate

    to tell a hawk from a handsaw is to be able to distinguish between a carpentry tool and a plastering tool. A plasterers hawk is a board, about 30cm square with a handle in the centre on one side. the plasterer holds the wet plaster on the hawk and applies it in smaller amounts to the wall with another tool called a float.

  • Clay Caldwell

    As was recently pointed out in a letter to the Wall Street Journal on 5/31/12 in response to the ornithological use of this term by Laura Jacobs in her book review…the hawk being referred to is more likely the mortar board Candy has referenced. Had Shakespeare been referring to a bird he probably would have said “I know a hawk from a hummingbird”…

  • Tom Purdue

    I live in Norfolk, and there is an old Norfolk word “harnser”, meaning a heron, which I believe became corrupted in Hamlet to “handsaw”. So I agree that the meaning of Hamlet’s comment is that he can tell a hawk from a heron, which makes a great deal more sense than comparing a bird to a carpentry tool!

  • Anna S.

    In response to your questions, yes I’ve heard someone use this phrase aloud; he used it very recently and has used it several times. The ‘world that I live in’ is one in which Canadians exist (I attend a US university, but we’re close enough that we get plenty of Canadian students as well). The person who said it was from Nunavut. It’s apparently a saying up there.

  • Given that the turtles in “Turtles from Jayes” were almost certainly turtledoves (as also in “The voice of the turtle shall be heard through the land.”), I would bet the metaphorical pair are avian hawks and herons.

    However, while Shakespeare would have been familiar with turtledove, jay, hawk and heron the chances of his knowing a hummingbird from a Hawker-Hunter are slim. Hummingbirds disappeared from most of the world 25 million years ago. Modern hummingbirds are confined to the Americas and only became know to Europeans in the course of the 16th century. How far that knowledge would have diffused by the start of the 17th century is anybody’s guess.

  • Tony

    Shakespeare is a master of making words do extra work, and Hamlet is a play that can be peeled like an onion for deeper meanings. So it should come as no surprise that there is another dimension to the hawk and handsaw comparison.
    If we assume Hamlet is talking about a plasterer’s hawk, then by saying he can tell one tool from another, he is also saying he can recognize tools when he sees them. The subtext is that he is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows they are tools for his uncle.

  • Rox

    It’s a crafty pun, for goodness sake. It means BOTH the two birds AND the two tools.

    I was reminded of this, and looked it up on the internet today, having seen a hawk for sale in Aldi for £3 .

  • Totally agree with Rox. Talk about much ado about eff all.

    Yeah He was a prolific and rather sharp witted writer, but I mean really, I just do not get all the fuss one bit? People get tied in knots about Shakespeare’s works from the 16th / 17th century.. what about living in the now as well? There are a great deal equivalent things now that warrant study and yet strangely do not get studied.

    e.g. Deadwood, Arrested Development, The League of Gentlemen etc.. etc..

    It really irks me. Shakespeare wrote the stuff for the ENTERTAINMENT and AMUSEMENT generally for those of marginally decent intellect of the time. The same can be said for the shows I have mentioned above. Why does Shakespeare warrant all the fuss…? There are some far cleverer devices witticisms and referential meta-shyte going on in (again) the shows mentioned above.

  • Marc Tolo

    This morning I had coffee with a 90-year-old Italian neighbor who had worked as a carpenter / plasterer back in the forties and told me that the wooden tool he used for holding the plaster was called a “hawk.” I thanked him for giving me part of the answer to the question about the meaning of that quote from Hamlet that has perplexed me since high school. Then I found my way to this website, where I see that others have made this discovery before me. Like Rox, I see both birds and hand tools at play here. Here’s my take:

    First, the weather. From what I know about nor’easters off the US Atlantic coast, storm-producing low pressure areas generate winds that blow counter-clockwise, which would lead with southerly winds as they cross the Atlantic toward England. The high-pressure areas that bring fair weather, however, generate winds that blow clockwise, which would reach England as winds from the north by northwest. Landlubbers might not be aware of such things, but certainly sea-farers would.

    Following the mention of winds, Hamlet seems to turn his attention to birds, which we are led to envision aloft in these breezes. The comparison of a hawk and a “heronshaw” or “harnser”, with the comically mangled pronunciation of “hand-saw”, is, as others have pointed out, certainly intentional. Yet this is not just a pun, I think, but a ruse.

    I believe Hamlet is, in fact, referring to a plasterer’s hawk and a handsaw, implying that, though not a carpenter or plasterer by trade, he understands how such tools are used. So, following a metaphor that a sailor would understand, but a workman might not, is this one, which is just the opposite. And, already expressed in a way not likely to make sense to any single observer, the truth Hamlet is darkly hinting at here is further obscured as he comically seems to refer to birdlife.

    But the madman playfully spouting nonsense about breezes and birds is actually a disguise for a clever schemer making a chilling threat. Now, in placid times—as when winds from the north by northwest bring clear weather—I may seem amusingly mad. But when turbulent times approach, like storms blowing in from the south, you will see that I have the tools needed for doing what must be done… and I know how to use them.

  • anthony mann

    Though, in full, I agree with the reasoning behind the ‘When I want to be Mad? I will be Mad’…concept I do not believe the writer was talking about ‘Birds’.
    Consider Shakes had a ‘working knowledge’ of ‘building trades, Drama set constriction etc, a ‘Lot’ of which was ‘fibrous Plaster’ etc (Not Feathers:);
    Also, the two people who he was chatting with(in the scene)would have easily understood the simple comparison twix two building tools. (Hawk & Handsaw; Hammer & Chisel, etc)
    Given their positions, Crantz and Stern would not have known, nor would they have given ‘Two Hoots’ about Ornithology…
    Shakes…? With the simplist of ploys, He ‘Plucketh experts by the nose’ then,
    and he’s still doing it… :))

  • anthony mann

    “Forgive the ‘Tedious twice-told tale’, being ‘Laid on with a trowl’…?
    I don’t know (& have often wondered), if the ‘Experts in literature’ have fully scrutinized the following so as to impartially determine and or dismiss any credence they may have on this subject .
    Though I suspect some experts would wish the matter would just go away (and heaven forbid my being the only person to have noticed this in almost 400 years);
    The somewhat controversial issue of whether Shakes was referring to ‘Birds’ or a plasterer work-tool in Hamlet, is made more controversial when considering it may not be the only example of his referring to a plasterers work-tool .
    There are a number of other things that are both relative and extremely noteworthy here :
    Despite what some may believe, a ‘Trowel’ and a ‘Float’ (even in Shakes day & age were in fact two different tools, both used by ‘Plasterers’
    Trowels were made of metal, ‘Floats’ (& Devil Floats) were made of wood.
    For those who may argue it impossible or implausible that Shakes (In Hamlet), would use such a simple reference as knowing a ‘Hawk from a Handsaw’ and (rather than ‘birds’), in the process actually be referring to two simple tools used, so to speak. by common tradesmen,
    I would simply refer to his work : ‘As You Like It,’ and (I believe) the ‘First recorded’ example of the following expression :
    [Celia]:
    “Well said—that was ‘laid on’ with a trowel”…
    It could easily be assumed or presumed that he was referring to a ‘Bricklaying Trowel’ (used to ‘lay’ beds of mortar for bricks).
    It is most prudent to note, however, the somewhat ancient (& to this day still used) expressions :
    ‘Laying On’~ ‘Laying In’~ ‘Lay On’~ ‘Lay In’~ ‘Laid in’ and >’Laid On’<,
    which were and continue to be expressions used in 'Plastering'. They are all expressions used to describe the application of various and or successive coats of plaster.
    Back in Shakes day there were No plastics nor fiberglass etc. and the 'Sets' were created by Carpenters, Plasterers and Decorators(No doubt many 'behind the scenes' amateur actors involved were also familiar with those trades and helped in 'stage set' creation (possibly Shakes himself contributed… Who knows).
    Bricklayers(& masons per se) were not really needed simply because the 'Sets' needed to be 'mobile' and bricks are heavy and permanent, which makes it evermore unlikely that Shakes was referring to a 'bricklaying trowel' in that particular 'As You Like It,' line.
    Also(though it may be an appealing thought to some experts); In all probability Shakes would Not have been permanently stuck in a side chamber scribbling away at a desk, but being a primary part of the troupe, would have been involved in the entire process; from writing, acting and everything betwixt and between;
    With those references to 'Hawks and Trowels', in no fewer than Two of his works, among his talents he may also have been an accomplished 'Spread' (a euphemism for a Plasterer).
    Who knows…?
    My guess is, being the genius he was(& no doubt for his own eternal amusement), methinks he knew enough about those particular terms to deliberately manipulate their names so as to leave the world permanently scratching it's head.

  • anthony mann

    Lastly (and not so incidentally); Food for the birds.
    Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, at the moment the following can be neither proved nor refuted.
    The term ‘Hawk’,
    when used to describe what is otherwise called a ‘Mortar Board’, comes (apparently?) from ‘Unknown origins’… Hmmm.
    The likelihood is, however, this tools name developed from a colloquialism and gained it’s present name ‘Hawk’ for one simple reason.
    Because of its design, the correct and >by far< most effective 'posture' of holding that particular work tool is, 'Not similar to', but the 'Exact' same posture by which a 'Falconer' would hold his 'bird'.
    That, I believe is the most logical explanation for the tools present name; "Hawk"
    ( In this case it would also seem to be something of a Clue:)

    Given that the 'Falconer' reference is actually the real definition of where that work tool gained its common name ? Equally unfortunately, it does no more than add ever greater depth to the potential mischievous intentions behind that Hamlet line…
    and here's the 'real' Rub

    Shakes, in Hamlet
    may have been referring to 'Work tools'…
    He may have been referring to Birds'…
    He may, in fact, have been referring to 'Both'….
    But a whole lot More besides…
    It would seem, from this prospective, in the same breath, Hamlets words have, 'throughout', been giving some considerable(origin) definition to a word that has long been considered as a word of 'Unknown origin' ?

  • anthony mann

    Sadly I do not know how to contact the moderators to ask why? but at 1:33 am on 30th Jan I posted a comment stating a plasterers mortar board gained the name ‘Hawk’ simply becasse the tool is held in exactly the posture as a ‘Falconer’ would hold his bird…
    I still believe this to be the case also something most relevant this subject. I know that statement may contradict certain current thinking but I am interested and very puzzled by the decision to remove that comment ?

  • SAGE

    BOTH hawks and herons are predatory. One pursues terrestrial and the other aquatic prey.
    As to “hawk” with no evidence, I suggest that the verb meaning “to raise” as phlegm in the throat and interest in wares point to a PIE root or at least Germanic root for the plastering tool, the bird, the clearing of throat and crying out all pertaining the elevation of all four.

  • “Hand saw” echoes the earlier line “nor do not SAW the air to much with your HAND.”

    (The links below are to my free and ad-free Hamlet website, which I’ve been working on for over 20 years.)

    I Know a Hawk from a Handsaw – Hamlet and the Spanish Armada – http://www.thyorisons.com/#Handsaw

    Hamlet (2.2.387-388)

    I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

    BERNARDO [describing the previous appearance of the ghost of Hamlet's father] (1.1.44-47)

    Last night of all,
    When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
    Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
    Where now it burns,

    The “pole” is the North Star. “Westward from the pole” would be “north-northwest.” Thus “I am but mad, north-northwest” means that Hamlet is only mad when under the influence of his father’s ghost.

    “Pole” might also be an allusion to Reginald Pole, who, as Bloody Mary’s Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, liked to call himself “the Pole Star” because he thought of himself as the guiding star about which the English people revolved.

    But Reginald Pole died of a broken heart when Queen Mary died and England reverted to Protestantism. Thirty years later, Queen Mary’s widower, King Phillip of Spain sent the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the Spanish Armada to bring England back to the Catholic Church by “strong hands and terms compulsatory.” But like Hamlet, Medina was but mad north-north-west: when the wind [was] southerly,) he was sane. On August 8, Saint Dominic’s Day, Medina decided that if the WIND continued to blow from the SOUTH (which it did) he would have to abandon the attack on England. He was unable to recapture the faith of Englishmen by force. He did “it wrong, being so majestical, to offer it the show of violence, for it is, as the air, invulnerable, and [his] vain blows malicious mockery.” St Dominic had advocated reasoning with heretics to bring them back to the Church by persuasion rather than burning them. The significance of St Dominic’s Day was not lost on English Catholics.

    From the context, “I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw” clearly means “I am in my right mind.” However, I don’t know why Shakespeare used that phrase to denote sanity. It might be related to the following line in Hamlet’s instructions to the players:

    HAMLET (3.2.4)

    . . . Nor do not SAW the air
    too much with your HAND, thus, but use all gently;
    for in the very torrent, TEMPEST, and, as I may say,
    the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
    a temperance that may give it smoothness.

    In the tempest that had blown his Armada off course, Medina acquired and begat a temperance to abandon his vain blows against England. Perhaps “hand” is a pun on “Armada”, similar to “Fort-in-bras” (near French for “strong arm”).

    It is worth noting that Shakespeare took pains to let us know that there had been a 30-year interval between the time old Fortinbras died and the time young Fortinbras came to reclaim those lands by strong hand and terms compulsatory. There was also a 30-year interval between the time Queen Mary died and the time her widower, Prince Phillip of Spain, sent the Spanish Armada to attempt to reclaim England by strong hand and terms compulsatory.

    Elsewhere Hamlet alludes to another war to recover lost land, with his cryptic reference to old Jephtha.

    HAMLET (2.2.418)

    Am I not i’ the right, old Jephthah?
    . . .

    HAMLET (2.2.426)

    . . .
    ‘It came to pass, as most like it was,

    “As most like it was” sounds like “so like the king that was.”

    BERNARDO (1.1.121-124)

    . . . . so like the king
    that was and is the question of these wars.

    That is Hamlet’s dilemma – whether “to be or not to be,” like the Ghost, “so like the king that was and is the question of these wars.”

    So like so many kings, his father, or old Jephtha.

    The story of Jephtha, in Judges 11, sounds most like the story of the king that was and is the question of these wars. The Ammonites were preparing for war against Israel to recover land Israel had taken from them, just as young Fortinbras was preparing for war to recover of us, by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost in the fatal duel with old King Hamlet.

    Judges 11.12
    … What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?

    Judges 11.13
    …Because Israel took away my land… now therefore restore those lands again

    And you, the judges, bear a wary eye. (5.2.278)

    Also please see
    The Memory Be Green – Hamlet in Historical Context
    - http://www.thyorisons.com/#Historical_Context
    and
    How to Love Hamlet – http://www.thyorisons.com/#Love_Hamlet

  • rudy

    The phrase was used in Rose Red, the Stephen King miniseries.

    In Stephen King’s world, it is alive and well!

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