The Grammarphobia Blog

Dishing the dirt

Q: I use “get one’s hands dirty” in reference to the grime from hard work, and “dirty one’s hands” in reference to dishonest activity. But some dictionaries say the two expressions can be used interchangeably. Your thoughts?

A: Both of the expressions you mention—“get one’s hands dirty” and “dirty one’s hands”—can be used literally or figuratively.

They can imply either that soap and water are called for or that something unsavory is going on. There’s good, honest dirt, but there’s also the metaphorical kind.

The verb “dirty” means to soil, and the adjective “dirty” means unclean. For centuries, both words have been used figuratively as well as literally.

Both are derived from the noun “dirt,” which showed up in English around 1300, probably adapted from the Old Norse drit (excrement), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The adjective “dirty” came into English in the early 1500s and the verb followed in the late 1500s. When the words were first used, they were meant literally.

But figurative usages soon followed, so that the adjective also meant morally unclean or dishonorable, and the verb also meant to make morally unclean or dishonorable.

The adjective later took on other figurative meanings: unsportsmanlike (as in “a dirty tackle”), unpleasant (“a dirty job”), regrettable (“a dirty shame”), hateful (“dirty politics”), and so on.

In short, you can “dirty your hands” or “get your hands dirty” either by happily working in the garden or by doing something less pleasant.

But if you prefer to use one expression figuratively and the other literally, that’s up to you.

The noun “dirt,” as you know, can also be used both literally and figuratively. A child can eat dirt literally and an adult apologizing for a lapse can eat it figuratively.

And, of course, anyone who loves gossip can “dish the dirt,” an expression that the OED cites from P. G. Wodehouse’s 1964 novel Frozen Assets: “He thinks you fall short in the way of dishing the dirt.”

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