The Grammarphobia Blog

Talking hands

Q: I enjoy your segments on Leonard Lopate but I can never get through on the phone! Here’s my question: Do you know the meaning behind the phrase “talk to the hand”?

A: “Talk to the hand” is a rude way of saying, in effect, “shut up.”

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as a dismissive American teen-age expression dating from the 1990s.

The phrase is actually a short version of a slang expression usually seen in full as “”talk to the hand, ’cause the face [or ear] ain’t listening.” It’s often accompanied by a hand signal: a palm held toward the offending talker, arm extended, in a “Stop!” gesture.

The language sleuth Gary Martin has traced the expression to an October 1996 advertisement in a Wyoming newspaper, The Pinedale Roundup.

In the ad, a cartoon cowboy in a ten-gallon hat appears to be encouraging people to vote. He’s pictured holding a hand out with the palm facing the reader. “If you don’t vote,” he says, “talk to the hand because the face does not understand.”

Martin, writing on the Phrase Finder website, says the expression showed up in Britain a year and a half later in a May 1998 issue of the Times.

In an account of a trip to San Francisco, a traveler describes the idioms encountered: “A contemporary favourite, if you don’t like what somebody is saying (a traffic warden, say) is to turn a palm forward and yell: ‘Talk to the hand.’ ”


Martin also mentions a 1998 article in which a writer in the Syracuse (NY) Herald Journal groans about the phrase: “I don’t know about you, but if I hear someone say ‘talk to the hand’ again I will strangle them with their own shoelaces.”

The expression hasn’t made it yet into the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, but two draft additions are “to talk the talk” and “to talk trash.”

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