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.)
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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’:
However, under the entry for get, there is this citation from Charles Kingsley’s ‘Hereward’, published in 1865:
That doesn’t seem to have quite the same meaning as the ‘New Yorker’ citation, but if you’re looking for first use . . .
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.
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: