"I am buying a third-hand book."

Does this mean I am the third or fourth owner of this book after I buy it?

  • 3
    We typically don't use "third hand" (outside of gossip and rumor), because "second hand" actually covers all articles that are not new (that is, have had at least one previous owner). With that said, an article becomes second hand the moment the first owner passes it on to the next. In a typical 2nd hand store (or consignment shop), most articles have had only one previous owner. Therefore, when you "buy second-hand", you are becoming the second owner. By a similar chain of logic, you are about to become the third proud owner of that fine book (which is still second hand, by the way).
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 16 '14 at 8:59
  • 5
    Obviously it's a handbook. Aug 16 '14 at 9:50
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth And maybe he already has two handbooks, so this is his "third handbook". He just mis-heard what the guy was saying. :)
    – Barmar
    Aug 16 '14 at 10:29
  • 3
    Can you imagine how sad the song about "Third-hand Rose" would be?
    – Barmar
    Aug 16 '14 at 10:30

1st owner buys new, keeps 1st-hand, sells 2nd-hand. 2nd owner keeps 2nd-hand, sells 3rd-hand. British vehicle logbooks work this way - each owner is referred to as the 'keeper', referred to in conversation by the appropriate preceding ordinal. Information and evidence may be treated similarly in legal, or other rigorous contexts… or gossip, vulgarly?

In practice, most things are described only as 'secondhand' irrespective of the number of previous owners, since the chain of possession is seldom documented. Unless it matters, this usage is certainly the least confusing, if not strictly accurate. 'Pre-owned' is a broadly accurate contrivance. 'Pre-loved' might be cynically regarded as broadly inaccurate, if not deliberately misleading. Any others?


I think 'third-hand' is simply humorous hyperbole, meaning 'so second-hand that it seems like an understatement to merely say second-hand'. Things are second-hand no matter how many owners there are after the first.


third-hand can be taken literally or figuratively.

In the literal sense, it refers to having a third owner, as others have said. In a literal sense, it does not mean having a fourth owner.

In a figurative sense it simply means not the original owner and not the second owner. There might be several reasons why someone would say this.

It might be said to emphasize (in stronger terms than what second hand means):

  1. one's poverty or misfortune
  2. one's frugality
  3. that the trail of ownership is lengthy (could be even more than three owners)

What a great question!

When you "buy a second-hand car" ("I just bought a second-hand ford") it can indeed mean that you are now (only) the second owner. So it was not really second-hand until the moment you bought it.

The simple fact is, like many things in English, it is a little unclear. the simple fact is the phrase in hand would not absolutely clearly let people understand the situation. That's just how it is with many phrases in English.

In fact I believe I've lterally said this sentence: "That car I have is second-hand, well I mean I'm about the third or fourth owner..."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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