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shameless pleading

Hands-on

Up next: Custer’s Epic Fail.

Dear Word Detective: I recently read a review for a historical fiction (set in 1881 in the Dakota territories) in which the reviewer chastised the author for using “hands-on.” What is the first known usage of this phrasing? I was unable to find it myself so I am turning to the Word Detective. I feel that it was used earlier than 1881 but can’t find proof. — Arwen.

Well, this is a new one on me. I actually get a fair number of questions from folks who believe they’ve detected an anachronistic word or usage in a work of historical fiction and want their suspicions confirmed. Sometimes they’re right; some inept writers sprinkle their Victorian dialog with slang far more likely to be overheard in today’s Hollywood than 1890s London. The PBS series Downton Abbey, for instance, has produced howling anachronisms every twenty minutes or so (e.g., “I’m just sayin’,” a locution that didn’t appear until after World War II). But it’s also common for readers and viewers to fall prey to what’s known as the “Recency Illusion,” a conviction that a given term or usage is much newer than it actually is, and thus inappropriate coming from a character in a work set in the distant past. Fortunately, in most cases it’s possible to consult the historical record and come up with at least an approximate “ballpark” sense of when the word or phrase in question first appeared.

In the case of “hands-on,” meaning “involving direct, personal practical experience of something” or “demonstrating active personal involvement” (e.g., a “hands-on management style”), I’m afraid that whoever criticized use of the term in a story set in 1881 was correct. It’s not even a close call. The first known occurrence of “hands-on” in print is from 1969. But wait, it gets better. That first use was in the context of students learning to use computers: “Elsewhere there are perhaps half a dozen IBM 1130s — the Sloan school has one in the basement — used for ‘hands-on’ calculations by students” (The Times (London), October 27, 1969). The next citation from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is also about computers (“At least eighteen seem, from their course descriptions, to offer ‘hands-on’ experience with computers,” 1971). Most of the remaining citations refer to either computers or science experimentation. Only the most recent (1987) refers to “hands-on marketing workshops,” in which “hands-on” probably refers to active group participation and planning, rather than actual performing tasks with one’s hands.

By 1977, “hands-on” was being used in a more metaphorical sense to mean “involved (or prepared to become involved) in practical aspects of an activity or job,” though even then computers loomed large in the “hands-on” world (“Immediate placement for versatile ‘hands-on’ individuals with current state-of-art, solid state, TTL, CMOS components and microprocessors,” 1977). But soon “hands-on” attained its modern meaning of “boss who looks over your shoulder and has lots of stupid ideas” (“Successful candidates will need to be self-motivated, ‘hands-on’ people who enjoy being involved in building a new enterprise,” 1984). “Hands-on” is also used today to mean “having first-hand experience,” even if only in telling other people what to do (“The successful candidate will have a solid record of achievement in ‘hands-on’ management established over several years experience,” 1985). Fortunately we now have laws in most jurisdictions barring bosses from actually pawing their employees, but even in the metaphorical sense, “hands-on management” can be, take it from me, really annoying.

So “hands-on” was not a good choice for an author aiming to convey the authentic vocabulary of 1881 anywhere, let alone in the Dakota territories. More suitable words would have been “practic” or “practical,” both dating to the 15th century, or perhaps “pragmatic,” “practitional,” or just plain “unbookish,” the word “bookish” being a fine old insult for someone whose learning has come solely from books and who thus brings no practical experience to the task (“Whose bookish rule hath puld faire England downe,” Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, 1594).

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