I have seen both idioms used in practice. The definitions I found,

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/get+arms+around, and http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/get+head+around

don't indicate much difference between the two and do not give any clue as to when one is more appropriate than the other.

The only significant distinction in the definitions is that "get one's head around" is mentioned as "informal", whereas "get one's arms around" is not.

  • Is this distinction accurate?
  • Are their others, both in term of meaning and usage?
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    One phrase is more conceptual, the other more physical. – Wayfaring Stranger Dec 24 '14 at 13:22
  • @Wayfaring Stranger : interesting. That's what I thought intuitively, but it is not clear at all from the above definitions and the examples therein, hence my puzzlement. – Martin Van der Linden Dec 24 '14 at 13:33
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    I've never come across figurative use of the "arms" version used in the sense of "understand". It doesn't really make any sense unless I see it as a "twice-removed" metaphoric extension from figurative grasp = understand, but I don't see why a competent speaker would want to do that. I think it's essentially a "copying error" from less competent speakers. – FumbleFingers Dec 24 '14 at 13:54
  • As I witness downvotes, I suspect the question might not be fully appropriate here. I am not a big user of ELU, so I am not quite familiar with the standards for questions here, but I'd be happy to learn. If you have time, feel free to tell me which standards you think are not met in the question, or to redirect me to posts in the meta discussing these standards. – Martin Van der Linden Dec 24 '14 at 16:12

I disagree that they are the same.

In my mind, "get one's head around" is about conceptual problems, whereas "get one's arms around" is about more physical things or actually "doing" stuff.

For example, I might say "I'm having problems getting my head around this task." meaning that I'm struggling to conceptually understand what I'm doing.

On the other hand, I might say "I'm having problems getting my arms around this task." meaning that I'm struggling to complete the actual task (but not because I don't understand).

As you can see, the distinction I draw is not a bright line in the sand, but I would say that it's consistent with how I've seen it used.

  • Thanks. Once again rather at odds with the examples presented in the links above, but it might just indicate that the site is a bad references. – Martin Van der Linden Dec 24 '14 at 15:35
  • @MartinVanderLinden I don't think it makes the site a bad reference at all. Idioms, by their very nature, are hard to define. Also, there are a lot of regional variations with idioms that are almost impossible to catalog. My experience may just be a function of my location in the world, and not actually indicative of the "common" definitions of those idioms. – Nick2253 Dec 24 '14 at 15:39
  • Point taken. I guess I would still expect a good reference to warn me about vaguenesses and to mention a couple of different regional variations, if any. To make a parallel with etymology : "true" etymology is by nature hard to establish, and there are different theories which are sometimes impossible to catalog. I do not expect a good etymological reference to be exhaustive, but I still expect it to warn me about the existence of competing theories, and to list -- and ideally discuss -- a couple of them. – Martin Van der Linden Dec 24 '14 at 16:05
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    @MartinVanderLinden No dictionary claims to be completely exhaustive. Built in to every single definition is exactly the caveat you want made explicit. If the editors of the dictionary were aware of a competing theory or definition, I assure you they would have included it. But asking for complete (or even just near-complete) awareness of all aspects of all regionalisms of all dialects of English is just too much. – Nick2253 Dec 24 '14 at 16:05
  • @Nick2253, what do you hear more often in the US- get one's head around or wrap one's head around (or wrap one's mind around, for that matter) ? – Daniel Mar 1 '18 at 18:18

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