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Our office is divided on both the prevalence of the two phrases, and whether they have different meanings.

The absurd extremes of our conflict claim, respectively, that "no hands" implies the speaker is informing others that he physically has no hands, or "no handlebars" refers to a bicycle or other conveyance that is missing the handlebar part.

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    No hands = hands off (i.e. not controlling) the handlebars.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 19:09
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    I have never heard the phrase "no handlebars", and I have never heard of anybody interpreting "no hands" as "I literally have no hands". To put it bluntly, I don't understand how this is even a debate. Commented May 4, 2018 at 19:22
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    "No handlebars" means your group of people are not wearing large handlebar mustaches.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 19:34
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    @DJClayworth There is still the problem that giving an 'answer' to a question one considers unsuitable for a site aimed at linguists can be seen as contributing to site mediocrity. I've upvoted the comment, and close-voted the question. Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:54
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    @DJClayworth The OP makes an observation about his office dispute but he doesn’t actually ask a question. Without a question, there can’t be any real answers, just comments and opinions in return. My comment above is in the right place.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 23:42

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The Oxford English Dictionary has a definition for look ma, no hands:

(orig. N. Amer.) look (ma, mom, etc.), no hands: (a) used as a boastful cry (originally and typically by a child to a parent or other adult) seeking attention or admiration for performing a difficult or complicated activity (often cycling) hands-free; (b) attrib. designating something showy or ostentatious.

While it is usually used in the context of hands-free bike riding, it doesn't have to be. It is also used when there is no bike at all in the picture (nor any handlebars), as is elaborated in their blog:

A cry of look mom, no hands! [subscription only link] usually conjures up the image of a child demonstrating their hands-free cycling skills to a (probably appalled) parent, although it has since been extended to any ostentatious display of self-confidence. It comes as a surprise then, to find that this update traces the phrase back to a 1937 cartoon in which neither a mother nor a bicycle appears. In a Fritzi Ritz strip syndicated in U.S. newspapers in April of that year, the title character's assurance to the grand Mrs Jackpot that her niece, Nancy is a 'very quiet child' is undermined when the girl herself makes an appearance, balancing a table lamp on her head and sliding down one of Mrs Jackpot's palatial banisters, shouting YIPPEE! Look Aunt Fritzi---no hands!!

The only time it's literal is in jokes making fun of the phrase.


"No handlebars" is a literal expression meaning... exactly what it says. Here's a picture:

text: "I can ride my bike with no handlebars", image: bike without handlebars
Image source: Shirtoid

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