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For the past several weeks, I've been trying to figure out the word for what a “handyman” does. Last night I heard someone on the TV downstairs say “this is my handiwork,” and the connection suddenly seemed so obvious.

Earlier today I did some research—looking through the dictionary definitions of both words and using Google Advanced Search to try to find cases in which the two words were used together—in hopes of confirming my theory. However, I was unable to find any reference to the words ever being used together.

So my question is twofold:

  • Are handyman and handiwork at all related?
  • If not, is there a word to describe the work that a handyman does?
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    Did you check the OED? There's actually an interesting tale here. See “enta geweorc” at Beowulf line 2717, “the work of ents” (where ents is the old word for giants), or “eald enta geworc” from the Old English poem, “The Wanderer” (eald was how they spelled old back then). We might call that old entiwork today by analogy with handiwork. – tchrist Nov 25 '17 at 21:35
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The word handiwork first appeared in Old English, where it was written as two words, hand ᵹeweorc meaning “hand work”. The OED provides this citation:

c. 1000 Ælfric Deut. iv. 28. And ᵹe þeowiaþ fremdum Godum, manna hand ᵹeweorc.

That smattering of Old English might in Early Modern English run more along the lines of “And ye shall worship foreign gods, the work(s) of men’s hands.”

About the word’s history, the OED also writes:

OE. had also handweorc ʜᴀɴᴅᴡᴏʀᴋ containing the simple weorc, work. As ᵹeweorc, iwork did not survive in ME., handiwerc was naturally analysed as a compound of the simple werc, with handi, often written separately, and treated as an adj.: see ʜᴀɴᴅʏ.

Morphologically, that ᵹeweorc there was a past participle form; think modern wrought. In this particular instance ᵹeweorc was functioning as a collective, so more in the sense of works than just plain work. Its curious ᵹe-/ge-/ye-/y-/i- prefix you might recognize from German past participles; it’s the same as we see in the archaic word yclept. Middle English saw OE handgeweorc worn down to things like hondiwerc and handiwork.

Because Modern English past participles did not survive with their Germanic prefix intact, in Late Middle English handiwork = hand + iwork was reanalysed as handiwork = handi + work instead, creating a novel adjective handy and applying it to the noun work.

So our word handy came from people thinking that the y- from the obsolete ywork got moved over to the noun hand in handiwork to make an adjective: handy work. Handy therefore originally meant manual in that it was hand + y, but it has come to mean more than that by extension. handy is more apt to mean “useful” than manual when used standalone.

So yes, handyman is indeed related to handiwork, but not at all in the way one might imagine. The adjective handy came from handiwork through reanalysis, and then later got applied to the various manual labors of a handyman.

The word handicrafts also comes from that reanalysis to create a compound word for craftwork done by hand. Handicap is less clear, however.

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    "King Ælfred the Great"? Here in Wessex, we know that Alfred was an Englishman, and are deeply suspicious of suggestions that he might be Saxon (isn't that some sort of German?) – TimLymington Nov 25 '17 at 22:41
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    @TimLymington Uh what? First, where did I call him a Sachsenhauser, and what does his father have to do with this anyway? – tchrist Nov 25 '17 at 22:46
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    'Ælfred' is Saxon, and no doubt used by historians. "Alfred the Great" or "King Alfred" has entirely different connotations. – TimLymington Nov 25 '17 at 23:04
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    @TimLymington The OED’s citation uses "Ælfred". I didn”t think I should rewrite that. – tchrist Nov 25 '17 at 23:29
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    @TimLymington My apologies: I mis-read the citation, and have amended it to be the abbot not the king. – tchrist Nov 26 '17 at 1:41
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Typically a handyman performs odd jobs upon request:

odd job
/ad dʒab/ (noun)

A casual or isolated piece of work, especially one of a routine domestic or manual nature.

‘he takes odd jobs, but nothing that would lead to a career’

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/odd_job

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