Where did the phrase "to come in handy" originate, and what exactly does it mean?
My understanding is that it essentially means to be useful. Is this correct?
As far as origins, I have no idea. Etymonline did not seem to know, either.
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Etymonline.com says of handy:
Meaning "conveniently accessible" is from 1640s.
To come in handy means something will be handy or useful in the near future, that it will become handy.
The earliest verifiable examples I found in Google Books are both from 1843.
First, in a "Weekly Journal of Gardening" column of The Gardener and Practical Florist:
CELERY, as we always recommend in small gardens, should be planted out at various seasons, and if there be any left in the seed bed, another row will come in handy. Earth up that which is advancing. LETTUCES in the seed bed may be thinned, and those taken out may be planted.
July 15, 1843.
"What have we got here ? a pair of handcuffs ; ah ! these come in handy ; the bushranger won't want handcuffs any more, but they'll do for his mate."
We can also find some slightly early uses of the similar to come handy. It was once used similarly and as often to come in handy, but lately has become rarer.
An October 1824 The London Magazine prints a letter from summer 1821:
please your oner,
hoping your oner wont be displeasd at my boldness and I send a little basket of eggs-good fresh eggs-and they were lade by the little black hen that's three yeer ould come Michaelmas eve the day that I send home your oner's shute— and the times are very hard intirely — intirely — plase your oner from
your oner's sarvent to comand,
the woman hopes the eggs wil come handy to the young mistris out of her confinement. — tuseday mornin.
It hails from the 1800s (per Dictionary.com) and it means:
Be useful or convenient, as in This check will really come in handy.
[Mid-1800s] Also see come in, def. 4.
Here is the Ngram graph of its usage:
This led me to an 1840 usage of the expression:
It looks like it evolved from the Middle English hende, which carried both the meaning of "readily accessible" and "useful" as well as a host of other definitions, which itself rose out of the Old English/High German gehende, which, interestingly enough has more or less the same definition as "handy" does today. I just wrote a paper on it, but I wasn't able to find any confirmation, so this may as well just be treated as food for thought or one of many possibilities. As it happens, hende was used in Middle English literature as of the late 13th/early 14th century, so the evolution into "handy" could have happened at any point between its own recorded uses and then.
A useful implement close at hand is how I would understand something handy. Most times we have to draw inference from precedents and usage rather than hard and fast definitions.
Early use of the phrase seems to indicate such an intention on the part of the authors, as well.
Sometimes, though, come in handy may have been used in one or the other of the meanings alone: useful or accessible.