I need some help with handle.

The following passage was written by Joseph Wolf, a German artist who specialized in natural history illustration.

I used to go to see Livingstone at Sloane Street; and he would propose subjects; but there was no handle to what he said. He had a thing in his mind that couldn't be illustrated. I couldn't make pictures of what he thought would be the best subjects. I didn't feel the inspiration to work with Livingstone.

At the time, he was drawing illustrations for David Livingstone. Livingstone described scenes he saw in Africa with words, Wolf was trying to draw from it. I can feel Wolf was not happy with Livingstone, but I have no idea what 'handle' means here. Some help would be great!

  • 2
    It's part of a metaphor theme: Ideas Are Physical Objects, which is a part of Thinking Is Manipulating Ideas. A handle is a physical extension of an object designed or naturally suited to be grasped by the human hand. So if there is no handle on an idea, there is no way to grasp it. I.e, the speaker could not understand what Livingstone said. Dec 5, 2016 at 17:06
  • 1
    @JohnLawler That is a good, complete answer. Post it. :)
    – NVZ
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:29

3 Answers 3


I've never heard "there was no handle", but I presume it is an extension of English idioms like "I couldn't get a handle on it", meaning I couldn't understand it. I think the image is a handle as "something to get hold of".


here handle means he has no idea or he couldn't get what Livingstone said

In this particular sentence, when you consider the progress, he is trying to say that he is not getting the thing that is in Livingstone's mind

getting handle to it: to find a way to understand a situation in order to control it

For example, if you want to control a situation or get control over something or grasp something, you should have an idea about it and you should understand it.

As the person didn't understand the thing, he didn't feel the inspiration to work with Livingstone

"I didn't feel the inspiration to work with Livingstone."

So I think this is the meaning of handle in this para

  • 1
    I downvoted your answer because it doesn't explain why it is correct, or how you came to this conclusion. It's not that it's wrong, it's probably right, but there's literally no way for anyone reading it to know. If you edit in a rationale, I'll remove my downvote, and if the explanation is good, probably upvote.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:26
  • Ya Done @Dan Bron
    – Nisha
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:41

The book indicates that the person who wrote or uttered this paragraph was a German artist. Well, there are two possibilities -- either the German artist was speaking German, and what he was saying was badly translated somewhere along the way to print, or he was speaking in what I call Germish, and my mother called the Schoenster Slanguage, i.e. some mishmash of German and English.

I lean toward the former possibility.

I asked my German spouse to backtranslate it for me. The response: "I can sort of recognize a certain German idiom in this which I'm too tired right now to think of. It means something like 'I had no idea what he was talking about,' or 'I couldn't grasp what he was getting at,' or 'I couldn't get a handle on it.'"

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