A measure of length = four inches. Horses are measured up the fore leg to the shoulder, and are called 14, 15, 16 (as it may be), hands high.
i. Hand (A). A symbol of fortitude in Egypt, of fidelity in Rome. Two hands symbolise concord; and a hand laid on the head of a person indicates the right of property. Thus if a person laid claim to a slave, he laid his hand upon him in the presence of the prætor. (Aulus Gellius, xx. 19.) By a closed hand Zeno represented dialectics, and by an open hand eloquence.
Previous to the twelfth century the Supreme Being was represented by a hand extended from the clouds; sometimes the hand is open, with rays issuing from the fingers, but generally it is in the act of benediction, i.e. with two fingers raised.
ii. Hand. (The final word.)
BEAR A HAND. Come and help. Bend to your work immediately.
CAP IN HAND. Suppliantly, humbly; as, “To come cap in hand.”
DEAD MAN'S HAND. It is said that carrying a dead man's hand will produce a dead sleep. Another superstition is that a lighted candle placed in the hand of a dead man gives no light to anyone but him who carries the hand. Hence burglars, even to the present day in some parts of Ireland, employ this method of concealment.
EMPTY HAND. An empty hand is no lure for a hawk. You must not expect to receive anything without giving a return. The Germans say, Wer schmiert der fährt. The Latin proverb is Da, si vis accipere, or Pro nihilo, nihil fit.
HEAVY HAND, as “To rule with a heavy hand,” severely, with oppression.
OLD HAND (An). One experienced.
POOR HAND (A). An unskilful one. “He is but a poor hand at it,” i.e. he is not skilful at the work.
RED HAND, or bloody hand, in coat armour is generally connected with some traditional tale of blood, and the badge was never to be expunged till the bearer had passed, by way of penance, seven years in a cave, without companion, without shaving, and without uttering a single word.
In Aston church, near Birmingham, is a coat-armorial of the Holts. the “bloody hand” of which is thus accounted for:—It is said that Sir Thomas Holt, some two hundred years ago, murdered his cook in a cellar with a spit, and, when pardoned for the offence, the king enjoined him, by way of penalty, to wear ever after a “bloody hand” in his family coat.
In the church of Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, there is a red hand upon a monument, the legend of which is, that a gentleman shooting with a friend was so mortified at meeting with no game that he swore he would shoot the first live thing he met. A miller was the victim of this rash vow, and the “bloody hand” was placed in his family coat to keep up a perpetual memorial of the crime.
Similar legends are told of the red hand in Wateringbury church, Kent; of the red hand on a table in the hall of Church-Gresly, in Derbyshire; and of many others.
RIGHT HAND. He is my right hand. In France, C'est mon bras droit, my best man.
SECOND-HAND. (See Second.)
UPPER HAND. To get the upper hand. To obtain the mastery.
YOUNG HAND (A). A young and inexperienced workman.
iii. Hand. (Phrases beginning with “To.”)
COME TO HAND. To arrive; to have been delivered.
GET ONE'S HAND IN. To become familiar with the work in hand.
HAVE A HAND IN THE MATTER. To have a finger in the pie. In French, “Mettre la main á quelque chose. '”
KISS THE HAND (Job xxxi. 27) To worship false gods. Cicero (In Yerrem, lib. iv. 43) speaks of a statue of Hercules, the chin and lips of which were considerably worn by the kisses of his worshippers. Hosea (xiii. 2) says, “Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves.” (See Adore.)
“I have left me seven thousand in Israel ... which have not bowed unto Baal, and ... which [have] not kissed [their hand to] him.”—1 Kings xix. 18.
LEND A HAND. To help. In French, “ Prêtez moi la main. '”
LIVE FROM HAND TO MOUTH. To live without any provision for the morrow.
TAKE IN HAND. To undertake to do something; to take the charge of.
iv. Hand (preceded by a preposition).
AT HAND. Conveniently near. “Near at hand,” quite close by. In French, “A la main.”
BEFOREHAND. Sooner, before it happened.
BEHINDHAND. Not in time, not up to date.
BY THE HAND OF GOD. “Accidit divinitus.”
FROM HAND TO HAND. From one person to another.
IN HAND. Under control, in possession; under progress, as “Avoir la main á l'oeuvre.”
“Keep him well in hand.”
“I have some in hand, and more in expectation.” “I have a new book or picture in hand.”
OFF HAND. At once; without stopping.
OUT OF HAND. At once, over.
“We will proclaim you out of hand.”
And, were these inward wars once out of hand, We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land.
WITH A HIGH HAND. Imperiously, arrogantly. In French, “Faire quelque chose haut la main.” v. Hand. (Miscellaneous articles.)
LAYING ON OF HANDS. The laying on of a bishop's hands in confirmation or ordination. PUTTING THE HAND UNDER THE THIGH. An ancient ceremony used in swearing.
“And Abraham said unto his eldest servant ... Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh: and I will make thee swear ... that thon shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaauites.” —Genesis xxiv. 2, 3.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894