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How did the expression "hands down" come to mean "without a doubt?"

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It does not mean "without a doubt," nor does it mean "winning by a big margin." It means "able to win, without even making a big effort." –  Joe Blow Jul 10 '11 at 11:12
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3 Answers

The phrase hands down comes from horse racing, as explained by The Phrase Finder:

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'.

And confirmed by Etymonline:

To win something hands down (1867) is from horse racing, from a jockey's gesture of letting the reins go loose in an easy victory.

I found this antedating of the phrase from The New Sporting Magazine, 1855:

http://books.google.com/books?id=iI8EAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=%22hands%20down%22&f=false

And I found examples of the phrase being used figuratively in other contests by the early 1880s.

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I'd always assumed it was about arm wrestling. –  Emre Jul 11 '11 at 1:32
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Meaning

Win easily, with little effort.

Origin

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.

(Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/win-hands-down.html)

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I'll take that off. In my travels, I've heard it used as if in reference to a classroom setting, but I think that is simply incorrect. (answer edited). –  theidiotbox Jul 10 '11 at 23:01
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I think that it refers to hands down, like that when youre playing poker, you would throw youre hand in betting everythings, with no doubt you'd win.

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Can you provide some sort of reference for this? –  p.s.w.g Aug 9 '13 at 5:30
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