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Apparently a tussle between two English footballers was described by an official spokesperson as

'I was there. There was no punches thrown. There was a lot of noise. Samir was talking in French, Manu wasn’t. They didn’t touch. It was handbags. There were words and that happens after most games,' he said.

Is this a BrE usage?

  • Found this question while trying to decipher a live blog entry for a World Cup match. So another example of usage: Corner come in and there's anear-post flick but Moreno in stretching for the header pushes Pletikosa over and handbags are taken out in the six-yard box with some shoving and slapping as the referee awards Croatia a foul. – Dusty Jun 23 '14 at 20:48
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From Wiktionary:

In British slang a fight where the protagonists are unable or unwilling to seriously hurt each other is commonly refered to as a handbag fight, in reference to the way girls fight by hitting each other with their handbags.

Update: I found this reference by searching for "handbags at dawn", but it turns out I could also have found it by searching for "handbags fight", so actually this is a question that could be answered by a simple search.

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    "unable or unwilling to seriously hurt each other ... hitting each other with their handbags" Have you seen the size of handbags today? :^) – Mr.Wizard Dec 1 '11 at 15:00
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It's a contraction of 'handbags at dawn'. This phrase is itself a variation of 'pistols at dawn' which was a typical way of fighting a duel. The phrase 'handbags at dawn' evokes a mental image of old ladies using their handbags as crude bludgeons and implies the participants weren't really serious about inflicting harm on each other.

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  • I've also heard the term, "Handbags at five / ten paces" used, which backs up this usage as being derived from a duel. – Paddyslacker Jan 31 '12 at 19:40

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