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Where did the phrase "to come in handy" originate, and what exactly does it mean?

My understanding is that it essentially means to be useful. Is this correct?

As far as origins, I have no idea. Etymonline did not seem to know, either.

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1  
Footnote: The word 'handy' has been recycled in German to mean a mobile phone. –  Barrie England Dec 20 '11 at 21:22
    
At some point in the late 90s, IIRC, it was simultaneously slang for a cell phone ("mobile phone" in the UK, apparently?) and for a certain portion of male anatomy. A commercial for one brand of cell phone played upon this ambiguity. –  Karl Knechtel Dec 21 '11 at 1:51

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Meaning

Etymonline.com says of handy:

Meaning "conveniently accessible" is from 1640s.

To come in handy means something will be handy or useful in the near future, that it will become handy.

Come in handy

The earliest verifiable examples I found in Google Books are both from 1843.

First, in a "Weekly Journal of Gardening" column of The Gardener and Practical Florist:

CELERY, as we always recommend in small gardens, should be planted out at various seasons, and if there be any left in the seed bed, another row will come in handy.

CELERY, as we always recommend in small gardens, should be planted out at various seasons, and if there be any left in the seed bed, another row will come in handy. Earth up that which is advancing. LETTUCES in the seed bed may be thinned, and those taken out may be planted.
July 15, 1843.

Second, in Tales of the Colonies, or, The Adventures of an Emigrant, Volume 2:

"What have we got here ? a pair of handcuffs ; ah ! these come in handy ; the bushranger won't want handcuffs any more, but they'll do for his mate."

"What have we got here ? a pair of handcuffs ; ah ! these come in handy ; the bushranger won't want handcuffs any more, but they'll do for his mate."

Come handy

We can also find some slightly early uses of the similar to come handy. It was once used similarly and as often to come in handy, but lately has become rarer.

come handy vs. come in handy

An October 1824 The London Magazine prints a letter from summer 1921:

the woman hopes the eggs wil come handy to the young mistris out of her confinement.

please your oner,
hoping your oner wont be displeasd at my boldness and I send a little basket of eggs-good fresh eggs-and they were lade by the little black hen that's three yeer ould come Michaelmas eve the day that I send home your oner's shute— and the times are very hard intirely — intirely — plase your oner from
your oner's sarvent to comand,
Timotheus Kinnealy.
the woman hopes the eggs wil come handy to the young mistris out of her confinement. — tuseday mornin.

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I believe the definition "readily accessible" is different from the definition being used here, which is essentially "useful". If I say, "When the burglar broke in I was glad I had a shotgun handy", I mean "accessible". If I say, "A shotgun is handy for dealing with burglars" I mean "useful". They're not particularly related. I could say that a tool is "handy" for a certain job, even if it locked in a toolbox in the corner of my basement at the moment. And I could say, "I have a snow globe handy", meaning sitting right there on the table, even though it's not clear what it might be good for. –  Jay Dec 20 '11 at 22:09

It hails from the 1800s (per Dictionary.com) and it means:

Be useful or convenient, as in This check will really come in handy.
[Mid-1800s] Also see come in, def. 4.

It can be explicated come in to the situation and be handy, where handy derives from hand, in the sense of right-hand man - useful.

Here is the Ngram graph of its usage:

This led me to an 1840 usage of the expression:

mummies

1840

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Unfortunately The Botanico-Medical Recorder is a mismetadating, scroll back to page 113 and you'll see it's from 1840 but the 4 looks like a 1. The earliest I found is 1843. –  Hugo Dec 20 '11 at 20:51
    
Thanks for the heads-up! –  Daniel Dec 20 '11 at 21:12
    
I wonder why there is such a dip in usage of the phrase in the post-war era? –  Karl Knechtel Dec 21 '11 at 1:52

A useful implement close at hand is how I would understand something handy. Most times we have to draw inference from precedents and usage rather than hard and fast definitions.

Early use of the phrase seems to indicate such an intention on the part of the authors, as well.

Sometimes, though, come in handy may have been used in one or the other of the meanings alone: useful or accessible.

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fly-by down voters please leave a comment. it will be appreciated. –  Kris Dec 22 '11 at 5:28

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