Sunday, May 06, 2012

Jargonwatch: Hands Down

I can't remember the first time I heard the use of the phrase "hands down" to denote a clear or easy victory. As in "Wilt Chamberlain was, hands down, the most dominant NBA player in any era". It's been at least 4 years. But recently I have noticed a major increase in usage--I seem to hear it more than once per week, including from my teens.

I'm sure nobody who uses it knows the origin. That would have included me, until I looked it up:
Jockeys need to keep a tight rein in order to encourage their horse to run. Anyone who is so far ahead that he can afford to slacken off and still win he can drop his hands and loosen the reins - hence winning 'hands down'. This is recorded from the mid 19th century; for example, 'Pips' Lyrics & Lays, 1867: 
"There were good horses in those days, as he can well recall, But Barker upon Elepoo, hands down, shot by them all."
 It began to be used in a figurative sense, to denote an easy win in other contexts, from the early 20th century.

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