One has a plural noun, the other singular.

There seem to be several idiom pairs/related idioms with inconsistent grammatical number. I am also thinking "on the fringe" and "on the fringes."

  • I suspect that the first is somehow related to handling animals such as horses. – Hot Licks Mar 9 '18 at 2:37
  • Unless you're in a rodeo, most people use both hands on the reins. But a firm hand may be needed when things get out of hand. – KarlG Mar 9 '18 at 2:51
  • if you are leading a horse people often use 1 hand – WendyG Mar 9 '18 at 11:31

They are two different idioms, the latter being formed from a situation in which one is unable to grasp something, even with both hands.

The difference between the two:

  • Get out of hand infers that the situation is out everyone's control,
  • Out of one's hands infers that one cannot control something that will happen.
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  • The OP is asking about why one expression uses both hands and another only one. – KarlG Mar 9 '18 at 2:30
  • @KarlG Thanks for the heads-up, I totally missed that. – Peter Johnmeyer Mar 9 '18 at 2:33

I think it has to do with the original idea of "hand" in the sense of "control" which contrast with "in hand" under control. In that respect, the usage of hand in the singular form is metaphoric and idiomatic:

  • Out of hand (1590s) is opposite of in hand "under control" (Etymonline)

From The Phrase Finder:

-Out of hand -- "If you reject an offer or idea 'out of hand,' you do so without hesitation. However, this phrase has several different meanings, the oldest of them being 'out of control,' from the days when failure to keep a firm grip on the reins would result in a team of horses being 'out of hand.'" From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988). Page 433.

The "out of hand = out of control or not being processed" meaning contrasts nicely with the "in hand = under control or being processed" meaning.

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