Entries linking to handbag
Old English hond, hand "the human hand;" also "side, part, direction" (in defining position, to either right or left); also "power, control, possession" (on the notion of the hand's grip or hold), from Proto-Germanic *handuz (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch, German hand, Old Norse hönd, Gothic handus), which is of uncertain origin.
The original Old English plural handa was superseded in Middle English by handen, later hands. Indo-European "hand" words tend to be from roots meaning "seize, take, collect" or are extended from words originally meaning only a part of the hand (such as Irish lam, Welsh llaw, cognate with Latin palma and originally meaning "palm of the hand"). One ancient root (*man- (2)), represented by Latin manus is the source of Old English mund "hand," but more usually meaning "protection, guardianship; a protector, guardian."
Meaning "manual worker, person who does something with his hands" is from 1580s, hence "hired workman" (1630s) and "sailor in a ship's crew" (1660s). Meaning "agency, part in doing something" is from 1590s. Clock and watch sense is from 1570s. Meaning "round of applause" is from 1838. The linear measure of 4 inches (originally 3) is from 1560s, now used only in giving the height of horses. The meaning "playing cards held in one player's hand" is from 1620s; that of "a round at a card game" is from 1620s. Meaning "handwriting" is from late 14c.; also "one's style of penmanship" (early 15c.). The word in reference to the various uses of hands in making a pledge is by c. 1200; specifically "one's pledge of marriage" by late 14c.
First hand, second hand, etc. (mid-15c.) are from the notion of something being passed from hand to hand. At hand is from c. 1200 as "near in time," c. 1300 as "within reach." Out of hand (1590s) is opposite of in hand "under control" (c. 1200). Adverbial phrase hand-over-fist (1803) is nautical, suggestive of hauling or climbing by passing the hands one before the other alternately.
Phrase on the one hand ... on the other hand is recorded from 1630s, a figurative use of the physical sense of hand in reference to position on one side or the other side of the body (as in the lefthand side), which goes back to Old English Hands up! as a command from a policeman, robber, etc., is from 1863, from the image of holding up one's hands as a token of submission or non-resistance. Hand-to-hand "in close contact," of fighting, is from c. 1400. Hand-to-mouth "said of a person who spends his money as fast as he gets it, who earns just enough to live on from day to day" [Bartlett] is from c. 1500. Hand-in-hand attested from c. 1500 as "with hands clasped;" figurative sense of "concurrently" recorded from 1570s.
"small sack," c. 1200, bagge, probably from Old Norse baggi "pack, bundle," or a similar Scandinavian source. OED rejects connection to other Germanic words for "bellows, belly" as without evidence and finds a Celtic origin untenable. In some senses perhaps from Old French bague, which is also from Germanic.
As disparaging slang for "woman" it dates from 1924 in modern use (but various specialized senses of this are much older, and compare baggage). Meaning "person's area of interest or expertise" is 1964, from African-American vernacular, from jazz sense of "category," probably via notion of putting something in a bag. Meaning "fold of loose skin under the eye" is by 1867. Related: bags.
To be left holding the bag (and presumably nothing else), "cheated, swindled" is attested by 1793. Many figurative senses, such as the verb meaning "to kill game" (1814) and its colloquial extension to "catch, seize, steal" (1818) are from the notion of the game bag (late 15c.) into which the product of the hunt was placed. This also probably explains modern slang in the bag "assured, certain" (1922, American English).
To let the cat out of the bag "reveal the secret" is from 1760. The source is probably the French expression Acheter chat en poche "buy a cat in a bag," which is attested in 18c. French and explained in Bailey's "Universal Etymological English Dictionary" (1736), under the entry for To buy a pig in a poke as "to buy a Thing without looking at it, or enquiring into the Value of it." (Similar expressions are found in Italian and German; and in English, Wyclif (late 14c.) has To bye a catte in þo sakke is bot litel charge). Thus to let the cat out of the bag would be to inadvertently reveal the hidden truth of a matter one is attempting to pass off as something better or different, which is in line with the earliest uses in English.
Sir Joseph letteth the cat out of the bag, and sheweth principles inimical to the cause of true philosophy, by wishing to make great men Fellows, instead of wise men ["Peter Pindar," "Peter's Prophecy," 1788]
updated on May 14, 2015