Out of hand

In your dreams.

Dear Word Detective: I recently used the phrase “rejected out of hand,” meaning “rejected automatically or without having to consider it.” I could not imagine a story that would explain why this phrase should mean that, unless the idea of autopilot has been around much longer than I suspect. Is it maybe a corruption of a non-English word or phrase? — Mike Fairman.

Hmm. That’s interesting. I realized just now that the word “autopilot” makes me vaguely anxious; it’s not quite as bad as “hand grenade,” but it’s close. The whole idea of handing that kind of control to a machine is creepy; didn’t anybody see Kubrick’s “2001″? Google, of course, is developing “self-driving” cars, an enterprise to which far too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid. These are the people who, when you search for “Charles Dickens,” show you pictures of squirrels on water skis. But I’m sure their cars will be awesome. What could possibly go wrong?

Hands are useful things. They’re “handy” (a term originally meaning “done by hand” in the 14th century; later “useful,” “easily accessible” and, of people, “clever or proficient with one’s hands”). The word “hand” itself is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (in a very old entry, in part from 1898) as “The terminal part of the arm beyond the wrist, consisting of the palm and five digits, forming the organ of prehension characteristic of man.” Our modern English “hand” comes from the Old English “hand” or “hond,” which came from ancient Germanic roots.

“Hand” in English has developed dozens of meanings, many of them figurative, from “hand” meaning “assistance” (“lend a hand”) to “symbol of marriage” (“In obedience to your commands I gave him my hand within this hour,” 1794). A “hand” can also be a person, from the “deck hand” on a ship to the “hired hand” on a farm. “Hand” can also denote the position of something in a metaphorical series of “hands” though which it might pass, e.g., “first-hand account” or “secondhand shoes.” And if you do something well, you deserve a “hand” in the sense of “applause” (“Three lusty cheers and a big hand for Charles, Our Star Square Dance Host!” 1948).

“Out of hand” meaning “immediately; without consideration or thought; summarily” (“When his brother asked to borrow $10,000, Dennis snorted and dismissed the suggestion out of hand”), is the opposite of the phrase “in hand,” which appeared in the early 15th century. “In hand” has a number of senses (including “in possession of,” as in “I have the money in hand”), among which is “in the control of; under consideration or being dealt with” (“He … gave his whole attention to whatever he had in hand,” 1888).

“Out of hand” first appeared at about the same time as that sense of “in hand.” Probably its most common use is in the sense of “out of control,” i.e., no longer “in hand” (“Your temper seems to have got rather out of hand,” 1883). The use of “out of hand” in the sense of “with no pause or consideration” simply means that the question posed was not held “in hand” for even a moment, i.e., never seriously considered. People rarely react well when their concerns are dismissed “out of hand” (“Salome and her Faction were Tooth and Nail for dispatching her out of Hand,” 1733), which is probably why so many customer service recordings today begin with “Your call is important to us.”

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