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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"?

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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
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.

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