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

I'm editing a manuscript that uses the phrase "get a handle on it". The action is taking place in the late 19th century, and this usage seems somewhat anachronistic to me. However, I can't locate anything to back up this feeling. Does anyone know when this phrase was first used? (Even better would be knowing when its use was in vogue.)

share|improve this question
Even assuming it was already used in the 19th century, how would we know if the author was aware of it? It could be his independent invention ('first use')? – Kris Dec 30 '11 at 6:30
@Kris - Certainly this is possible. And someone in the 19th century could also have invented the phrase "cowabunga, dude" as well. YMMV, but I find that even when each individual item (like this) isn't all that important on its own, checking many details like this can, in aggregate, add an additional sheen of authenticity. Similarly, failing to do this can make the reader do a little more work to believe in the story's background. And making things hard for readers is almost never advisable. – Neil Fein Dec 30 '11 at 7:25
My wife is an editor and she has driven more than one author to distraction by finding one anachronism after another. The good authors know she is helping them, but some of the wannabes complain quite loudly. – Peter Rowell Dec 30 '11 at 21:28
@PeterRowell - She should probably never work on alternate history or steampunk, then. :) – Neil Fein Jan 6 '12 at 1:52
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Under its entry for handle, the OED defines to get a handle on, as ‘to gain control over . . . to acquire the means of understanding or of forming an opinion about’ and the earliest citation in support is as late as 1972 from the ‘New Yorker’:

Scribner . . . said to me, ‘I don't think people have any idea of how tough it is for anyone in this job to get a handle on anything.’

However, under the entry for get, there is this citation from Charles Kingsley’s ‘Hereward’, published in 1865:

Driving them mad and desperate just that you may get a handle against them.

That doesn’t seem to have quite the same meaning as the ‘New Yorker’ citation, but if you’re looking for first use . . .

share|improve this answer
It's not the same meaning, but it's similar enough to be relevant to the passage in the manuscript I'm working on. Thanks! – Neil Fein Jan 6 '12 at 1:59

An instance appears in a 1902 college magazine, found among 1500-1978 links at ngrams for get a handle on it,get a handle. Obviously it's a phrase not often found in books of that vintage, but ngrams says nothing about its frequency in spoken language.

A 1938 magazine article apparently uses the phrase too.

share|improve this answer
Interesting, I thought this phrase came about no earlier than the 1950's. This is helpful! – Neil Fein Dec 30 '11 at 7:26

Found this late 19th century use of the phrase that I think matches its more contemporary use. This is from an 1874 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

enter image description here

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


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.