English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The expressions "hand over hand" and "hand over fist" seem to be related. Apparently "hand over hand" was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to "hand over fist", and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.

But why "fist"?

share|improve this question
2  
Why 'head over heels' since one would expect them already to be in that configuration? Sometimes, things just are. – Mitch Jul 27 '11 at 16:44
    
Hand over fist is when you are holding a jug and stuffing gold coins into it. – jlovegren Jul 14 at 2:23
    
I'd love to see the evidence for "hand over fist" descending from "hand over hand". I thought it came from the method of choosing first batter in a game of stickball. – Phil Sweet Jul 14 at 2:59
    
It's interesting that the two terms have nearly opposite meanings. "Hand over hand" is used to imply a somewhat tedious process, while "hand over fist" generally implies a rapid process, as in "making money hand over fist". – Hot Licks Jul 14 at 3:19
up vote 4 down vote accepted

"Hand over fist" is a little more visually accurate; when pulling, hoisting or climbing in the method we are describing, one hand is always a closed fist over the rope or rung and is being pulled down or toward the person, while the other hand is open and moving up to grab a higher or further section of the rope.

It may have come into usage as a differentiation from "end over end", describing a different type of motion. With the tendency in many British dialects (which we Americans inherited and kept for a few decades) to drop leading "H" sounds, "hand over hand" becomes "'and o'er 'and" which sounds very similar to "end o'er end". Trying to describe these motions in conversation or orders over wind and waves would be difficult.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.