[Candy] "That's the boss's son," he said quietly. "Curley's pretty handy. He done quite a bit in the ring. He's a lightweight, and he's handy."

"Well, let him be handy," said George. "He don't have to take after Lennie. Lennie didn't do nothing to him. What's he got against Lennie?"

Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck

The adjective “handy" usually refers to something conveniently near, a useful object or someone skilful with their hands but in this instance it seems that handy refers to someone who is prone to using physical violence. We learn that Curley is a bit of a boxer “He done quite a bit in the ring”, so he knows how to throw a punch and defend himself in a fight.

Online some sites suggest that handy denotes physical strength, and some suggest that Curley is skilful in picking fights.

However, none of the dictionaries I checked; The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), Oxford Dictionaries (EOD), Collins (CED), and Cambridge Dictionary (CD) tell me that handy refers to a an aggressive person who uses their fists or hands. In Italian the term manesco , which is derived from the noun mano (hand), refers to someone who is quick to use their hands in a violent manner. For example, a mother who slaps her children is una mamma manesca, and a husband who beats his wife is un marito manesco.

I'm guessing this is an example of semantic shifting but I have never come across this secondary meaning before.

  • Am I mistaken? Do the three instances of "handy" in the excerpt above refer to Curley as being skilled with his hands. Was it meant to be ironic?

  • Is it an example of American dialectal usage? Is it an example of Candy's idiolect?

  • What would have been the the standard American English equivalent of handy, meaning a person inclined to physical violence, in the 1930s?

  • To me, the context seems to say that Curley is capable of effective physical violence (like you say, he's had experience in the ring), but I don't see anything saying he's prone to doing it. Basically, he can handle himself in a fight. – John Go-Soco Jul 4 '18 at 12:50
  • I would assume it also links to the phrase "he is a bit handsy" to mean he can't keep his hands to himself, meaning he touches people when they don't want it (usually sexually). – WendyG Jul 4 '18 at 13:39
  • wow comments deleted ? – Mari-Lou A Jul 5 '18 at 19:50

Steinbeck seems to be using handy in the conversation as a truncated form of the idiomatic phrase "handy with his fists," meaning in a narrow sense "a good pugilist [in a formal boxing match]" and in a broader sense "a good fighter [in any physical altercation]." This is certainly the conclusion that a reviewer of Of Mice and Men, writing in 1937, draws in his brief description of Curley. From Fred T. Marsh, "John Steinbeck's Tale of Drifting Men," in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (February 28, 1937), reprinted in Michael Meyer, ed., The Essential Criticism of John Steinbeck's of Mice and Men (2009):

There are trouble makers in the bunkhouse Curley, the boss's son, a little fellow handy with his fists, likes to take on big clumsy fellows, pick fights with them. He wins no matter how the fight comes out, because if he licks the big fellow, every one says how game he is, and if he gets the worst of it every one turns on the big fellow for not taking [on] some one his own size.

Although "handy with [one's] fists" doesn't appear in Christine Ammer's American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, it is a widely used and recognized set phrase in the United States and perhaps in Great Britain as well (where it probably originated). Here is the Ngram chart for "handy with his fists" for the period 1850–2005:

As you can see, the expression was most popular during the half-century from about 1910 to about 1960, but it has by no means disappeared in more-recent decades.

A Google Books search finds instances going back to 1833 (in England) in the narrower sense and to 1858 (in a U.S. publication, but by an author who spent considerable time in both the U.S. and England) in the broader sense.

From "A Trip to Paris with Mr. Jorrocks," in The New Sporting Magazine (June 1833):

Jorrocks too, as many of the readers of the N. S. M. are aware, is very handy with his fists, having studied under Bill Richmond, the man of colour, and is reported to have exhibited (incog.) with a pugilist of some pretensions, at the Fives-court; and considering all things, fists seemed as proper a mode of settling the business as any we could hit upon.

From Nimrod's Hunting Tours, Interspersed with Characteristic Anecdotes, Sayings, and Doings of Sporting Men (1835):

Our party at the Club, in consequence of the weather, was small, but everything extremely comfortable and correct; and in the secretary (Mr. Benjamin Ord, well known in the school as Ben Ord, and very handy with his fists) I recognised an old Rugbean, although he quitted half a year after I entered the school.

From "January Searle" [George Searle Phillips], Myra, the Gipsy Prophetess, serialized in Frank Leslie's New Family Magazine (May 1858):

"Ye may say that, ye may well say that, ye ill-favored tyke! There's no lad on all the head fit to stand in his shoon. He war as strite as a young poplin tree, and as handy with his fists as the best tawny ye've got in the 'campment; and no chap in these parts could fling him in the wrastling ring, or beat him at the foot race, or wark a cobel, or shoot, or fish, wi' the likes o' him. Wae's me! he's left his old mother many a long year, and gone across to Ingies, and I shall never see him no more."

And from Jack Hyfligher, M.D., and What He Did, serialized in Yankee Notions (April 1859):

They trampled up and down the hall, struggling and swearing, knocking now against the bannisters and now against the wall, until both got exceedingly exhausted. If Jack could have made the unknown stand off, he could have settled the matter very speedily, for as we have seen, he was very handy with his fists.

  • "Handy with his fists" now it all makes sense. Thank you for your detailed and insightful answer. – Mari-Lou A Jul 5 '18 at 18:40

Handy has its usual meaning here, i.e. a person (or thing) is handy if they are useful and at-hand when they are needed.

In a conflict that can lead to a physical fight, a good friend with a strong punch is handy to have.

In a culture where there is a lot of physical fighting between groups, it would be natural to use an expression like handy in a fight to describe someone, and also have it apply to the individual in a fight with another individual.

A person using such an expression is conveying a larger philosophy of life, which is probably why Steinbeck chose those words for Candy’s description of Curley, e.g.

  • Life is a struggle.
  • The best will rise to the top.
  • You have to stick with your leader and serve their purposes.

In contrast, George is rejecting this view. Curley can be handy for others’ purposes, but this doesn’t give him the right to go after Lennie.

There are other words that can be used the same way, i.e. an adjective that applies to behavior with other people being applied to an individual, such as loving, team-player, loose cannon, and so on.

The key to understanding this passage in the book is to see the adjective in its broad context. Steinbeck had a very direct style. He wouldn’t be relying on his readers to know every obscure meaning that could be found in a dictionary.

  • I highly doubt this is correct. “Handy [with his fists]” is hardly obscure; it’s a perfectly commonplace, colloquial phrase that any author could use, confident that the reader will understand it, even if truncated as here. I think your interpretation to a much greater degree involves fitting a square meaning into a round usage and would require the reader to take some fairly obscure leaps. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 5 '18 at 8:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The whole point of my answer is that Steinbeck wrote in a very direct style, so that handy has its ordinary meaning. That said, the choice of handy in this passage lets Steinbeck convey more than the simple thought that Curley was a competent fighter. – Global Charm Jul 5 '18 at 17:24

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