The Grammarphobia Blog

Time studies

Q: I probably have too much time on my hands, which may be why I’ve been wondering where the phrase ‘”time on my hands” comes from. Can you help me?

A: For almost a millennium, people have used the expressions “on hand” and “upon hand” to describe things that were in their possession or that they were responsible for.

The things could be belongings, property, work to do, responsibilities, or business to be dealt with or disposed of. The Oxford English Dictionary cites printed references going back to the year 1025.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century collection of the Arthurian legends, for example, Merlin tells Arthur of 11 kings who have “more on hand than they are ware of.”

In the 16th century, the plural forms of the expressions, “on one’s hands” and “upon one’s hands,” showed up. The OED defines them as meaning “resting upon one as a charge, burden, or responsibility, or as a thing to be dealt with or attended to; opposite to off one’s hands.”

The earliest citation in the OED for these expressions used in reference to time is from a 1700 satirical work that mentions people with “a great deal of Idle Time lying upon their Hands.”

And we’ve had time on our hands ever since.

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