I'm editing a manuscript that uses the phrase "get a handle on it". The action is taking place in the late 19th century, and this usage seems somewhat anachronistic to me. However, I can't locate anything to back up this feeling. Does anyone know when this phrase was first used? (Even better would be knowing when its use was in vogue.)
Under its entry for handle, the OED defines to get a handle on, as ‘to gain control over . . . to acquire the means of understanding or of forming an opinion about’ and the earliest citation in support is as late as 1972 from the ‘New Yorker’:
Scribner . . . said to me, ‘I don't think people have any idea of how tough it is for anyone in this job to get a handle on anything.’
However, under the entry for get, there is this citation from Charles Kingsley’s ‘Hereward’, published in 1865:
Driving them mad and desperate just that you may get a handle against them.
That doesn’t seem to have quite the same meaning as the ‘New Yorker’ citation, but if you’re looking for first use . . .
An instance appears in a 1902 college magazine, found among 1500-1978 links at ngrams for get a handle on it,get a handle. Obviously it's a phrase not often found in books of that vintage, but ngrams says nothing about its frequency in spoken language.
A 1938 magazine article apparently uses the phrase too.
Found this late 19th century use of the phrase that I think matches its more contemporary use. This is from an 1874 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:
When did 'get a handle on' become a popular idiom
For a sense of how recently the expression "get a handle on" became popular, consider this Ngram chart for the phrase for the period 1860–2005:
As you can see, isolated blips occur from the 1870s onward (though many of these are false positives generated by date errors), but sustained occurrences year in and year out begin only in 1957—and the idiom's rise from near-baseline frequency begins in earnest about a decade later. On the strength of this record, I would not be inclined to view "get a handle on [something]" as a common U.S. idiom until the late 1960s at the earliest.
Google Books search results for the idiom
I ran several Google Books searches covering the period 1800–2008. The earliest authenticated match that turned up in those searches was from Navy Department Bureau of Supplies and Accounts (1954) [combined snippets]:
How do you get a handle on either of these problems, both of which are inventory management problems? Determining what items should be put on a new base or a special purpose support ship, or what should go with a special movement forward, represents a possible third problem. It is submitted that summary reports based upon fraction information will give you a management lead to solution of these problems or at least to further more definitive questioning.
From Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Development, Growth, and State of the Atomic Energy Industry: Hearings (February 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, and March 5, 1957) [combined snippets]:
Mr. FIELDS. The prices on the uranium 235 enriched varies with the enrichment. So you have a schedule of prices, and this has been published. To get a handle on it, it is $16, approximately, per gram for uranium enriched to 20 percent, that is, in uranium 235.
Next, from American Society of Newspaper Editors, Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the Convention (April 21, 22, 23, 1960) [combined snippets]:
By measuring the insolation on a worldwide basis, one can probably get a handle on long-range weather prediction or gross weather prediction. It will take some time before it will really be possible for a satellite like this to predict weather. It will be used at first, and probably for some long time, as just an adjunct to the methods we now use. It will eventually revolutionize the prediction of weather, but it will take some time before that happens. For instance, the sorts of things it can't do, which are nevertheless important for predicting the weather, are things like measuring pressure, measuring rainfall, measuring the actual wind direction at various altitudes and so on. These are very important in meteorology. The satellite can't do them. What the satellite can do, though is get clouds and get them on a completely worldwide basis where otherwise there is no weather information.
On the strength of these three earliest matches, I surmise that the modern sense of "get a handle on" arose in the 1950s as U.S. bureaucratic slang meaning (as it still does today) "make sense of, grasp, or come to grips with."
Earlier instances cited in other answers
There remains, of course, the problem of what to make of much earlier instances of "get a handle on" cited in other answers to this question. My approach is simply to look at them individually and in context and see whether any of them can reasonably be viewed as likely progenitors of the idiom "get a handle on" that emerged in the 1950s.
In their answers, Callithumpian and jwpat7 find instances from 1874, 1902, and 1938. Let's look at each of these in turn.
From Constance Woolson, "The Lady of Little Fishing," in The Atlantic Monthly (September 1874):
There was a man among us—I have not said much of the individual characters of our party, but this man was one of the least esteemed, or rather liked; there was not much esteem of any kind at Little Fishing. Little was known about him; although the youngest man in the camp, he was a mooning, brooding creature, with brown hair and eyes and a melancholy face. He wasn't hearty and whole-souled, and yet he wasn't an out and out rascal; he wasn't a leader, and yet he wasn't a follower either. He wouldn't be; he was like a third horse, always. There was no goodness about him; don't go to fancying that that was the reason the men did not like him, he was as bad as they were, every inch! He never shirked his work, and they couldn't get a handle on him anywhere; but he was just — unpopular. The why and the wherefore are of no consequence now. Well, do you know what was the suspicion that hovered over the camp? It was this: our Lady loved that man!
Superficially, this instance looks like a match in sense for "get a handle on" as it is used today. But on closer examination, the sense of "get a handle on" here seems to be closer to "find something distinctly blameworthy about."
From "A Fantasy of Old Egypt" in The Mount Holyoke (December 1901):
"Halliwell! Aw, I say, Dick Halliwell, wake up!" A tall young Englishman with a trace of excitement in his drawling tones slapped the dreamer heartily on the back. "We're on the track of a find, dontcherknow. This morning got hold of one of the lying imps sent by the Khedive to thrash the ground for a new tomb last time he wanted one on hand for visitors—found something along by Deir-el-Bahari, you know. Aw, yes, kept secret, but, but, I say, they've smuggled more of the old chaps into Cairo in the last day or so than I've seen before for a year. Must have made quite a haul of their mustinesses. Struck some new tombs, a royal among them, I fancy. Thought I'd try to get a handle on it for you, dontcherknow, Halliwell."
Here "get a handle on" seems to mean "set something up [for someone]," although, again, the first impression you may have is that it means "get a sense of [something]," as the modern idiom sometimes does.
From Albert Maltz, "Rehearsal," in One Act Play Magazine (March 1938) [combined snippets]:
VERA: (Taking a deep breath.) I love you, Chris. (A pause.)
CHRIS: You never said that.
VERA: You never said it to me. I'm telling you now because I think I'd better. ... Does it make any difference?
CHRIS: I don't know.
(Silence ... Chris thrusts his hands into his pockets. His face is tight and unhappy. Vera regards him impassively.)
VERA: I wish you'd tell me what you have to say.
CHRIS: (In a low voice.) I'm going to ... I'm sorry as hell. I don't feel like hurting you. I don't even know my own mind.
VERA: You won't hurt me.
CHRIS: (Louder.) Sure I will. That's the trouble. I'll hurt you and you won't show it. Look at you: Not a ripple on your face. Like nothing was going on inside. I suppose nothing is?
VERA: You want a Joan Crawford? You want me to make unhappy faces and cry for you?
CHRIS: Why not? What's wrong with a woman crying?
VERA: I never cry!
CHRIS: And God damn it, that's the trouble with you.
VERA: Chris—you're not still mad because I came late?
CHRIS: God, no, I'm not thinking about that. I wish I was.
VERA: Will you tell me?
CHRIS: I'm trying to. I can't get a handle on it. (He pauses.) Oh—the hell with it!
The meaning of the phrase here is extremely close to the modern sense of "get a handle on [something]"; it means essentially "figure [something] out or put [something] into words." The question is whether any (or perhaps all three) of these three antecedents is actually a lineal predecessor of "get a handle on" as used today. The strongest argument in favor of them is that they don't seem terribly different in meaning, especially the 1938 instance. The main countervailing problem is that the record seems so spotty: three instances (each with a somewhat different meaning) spread across 64 years, and then another 16-year gap before the unmistakable modern idiom begins its ascent in popular usage.
What the dictionaries say
A number of major slang and idiom dictionaries that focus on U.S. usage—the four editions of John Barlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1848–1877), the two editions of Barrère & Leland's Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant (1889–1897), James Maitland's American Slang Dictionary (1891), Farmer & Henley's exhaustive seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues (1890–1904), Mitford Mathews's massive Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951), and the two editions of Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang (1960 & 1967)—from the period 1848–1967 don't mention "get a handle on" at all.
It is extremely difficult to square the silence of these resources with the notion that the idiomatic use of "get a handle on" was widespread during that time period. And when slang and idiom dictionaries do begin to take note of the phrase, they don't view it as being particularly old. From Paul Beale, Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1989):
handle, n. ... 2. In have a handle on (something), to have it under control, to understand it, as in 'The police have a handle on the mob problem': Can.: since mid-C.20.
From Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995):
get a handle on someone v phr by 1972 To begin to understand someone; have a clue as to someone's character, behavior, etc.: That's right. I can't get a handle on on him.—Lawrence Sanders
Notice how different the sense of "get a handle on someone" is here (where it means begin to understand someone or have a clue about the person's character or behavior) and in Woolson's 1874 short story (where the narrator tells us that no one had any doubt bout the young man's character and shortcomings but that nevertheless people couldn't "get a handle on him anywhere").
From J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang (1997):
handle n. ... 5. a firm grip, as on a fielded ball; (also) a way of managing or understanding.—usu. in negative constrs.; in phr. get a handle! calm down! get ahold of yourself! Now colloq. [First cited occurrence:] 1961 Ellison Memos 92: He was the weakest, most vulnerable kid I'd ever seen. He couldn't get a handle on life.
And from Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006):
get a handle on something, to To succeed in dealing with a difficult problem. Dating from the mid-twentieth century, this slangy Americanism alludes to coping with a cumbersome object by attaching a handle to it. However, "handle" has been used both figuratively and literally in several ways for many years. "Most things have two Handles; and a wise Man takes hold of the best," wrote Thomas Fuller in his Gnomologia (1732). Further, "handle" has been a colloquialism for a title, and by extension a name, since about 1800. The current saying, on its way to becoming a cliché, thus can allude either to getting a secure hold on a slippery problem, or to identifying it correctly by naming it. A synonym for the former sense is get a grip on something, meaning to take a firm hold on it.
Recent slang and usage dictionaries agree that "get a handle on [something]" emerged as an idiom in its modern sense between roughly 1950 and 1972.
The three much earlier instances of the phrase (from 1874, 1902, and 1938) pointed out in other answers to this question are very intriguing. It is possible that they reflect three generations of underground or highly localized usage of "get a handle on" leading to the emergence of today's popular idiom. Or they may be coincidental occurrences arrived at independently and doomed to serial extinction. The truth is difficult to discern.
But what seems unmistakable from the shape of the Ngram chart above and from the silence of slang and usage dictionaries between 1848 and 1989 is that "get a handle on" was not by any measure a widespread idiom in the nineteenth century, and that using it in historical fiction as though it had been a popular idiom then is in all likelihood an exercise in anachronism.
All these answers seem very well researched and thought out. I’d just like to throw in a theory of sorts as to its origin.
As a wood carver, knives are forged with a small tip of metal beneath the blade. To use it this way would be unwieldy, and unmanageable. To “handle” the tool is to create a wooden (or other material) object that can be easily gripped so the blade can be set within it, thus making the blade safer, easier, and more manageable to use.
Again, don’t have any date, but the process of “handling” tools to make them easy to hold and use has been in practice for centuries. I imagine the turn of phrase in transference to people managing a task has been around for some time, certainly before the 1900s.