The Grammarphobia Blog

A hand in the game

Q: Do you have any idea as to the origins of the expression “a hand in the game” and how old it might be?

A: We’ve found examples of “a hand in the game” in British and American writing—fiction as well as collections of letters and so on—dating back to the early 1800s.

The word “hand” had been used for centuries before that to mean involvement, or “a part or share in doing something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That sense of the word is chiefly used, the OED says, in the expression “to have a hand in,” which was first recorded in the 1580s.

This 18th-century quotation from the OED is a good example: “I solemnly protest I had no hand in it,” from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).

And here’s a contemporary citation from the OED by Queen Elizabeth, quoted in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (2012):

“Prince Philip and I want to take this opportunity to offer our special thanks and appreciation to all those who have had a hand in organising these Jubilee celebrations.”

So the notion of having “a hand in” may have led to the longer expression “a hand in the game,” with “game” used literally to mean a card game or figuratively to mean some activity or project.

Since the mid-1500s, the OED says, “hand” has been used to mean the set of cards held by a player. And this sense of “hand” has been used figuratively since 1600 to mean one’s lot or fate.

So by extension, to have “a hand in the game” may refer to being a player—if not in an actual card game, then in some other enterprise, good or bad. 

This interpretation seems to make sense, considering the contexts in which 19th-century writers used the expression. Some of them also threw in metaphorical references to cards or gambling.

For instance, this passage describing the character of a miser comes from an essay written in 1815 by Conrad Speece, a newspaper columnist in Staunton, Va.:

“He is capitally skilled in the making of bargains, and makes a great many. On this subject his maxim is, ‘all the world is a cheat, and he is a fool that has no hand in the game.’ ”

And this quotation is from a letter written in 1824 by the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie. Here he writes to a fellow artist, mentioning that the two of them had promised to do a joint drawing of a nobleman’s stately home:

“I successfully showed his Lordship that the delay did not rest with me, that you were the first hand in the game, and that it was not my turn till you had played your card.” (Notice that Wilkie also uses the image of “playing a card” to mean “making a move.”)

The expression cropped up a few years later, in 1827, when Thomas Carlyle translated a passage from the German writer Jean Paul Friedrich Richter:

“However, I could not speak to her, nor as little to the Devil, who might well be supposed to have a hand in the game.”

And later in the century, we find this example in Robert Louis Stevenson’s travelogue An Inland Voyage (1878): “In a place where you have taken some root you are provoked out of your indifference; you have a hand in the game.” 

Over the centuries, card games have given us many phrases that have acquired meanings beyond the poker or bridge table:

to “show [or declare] one’s hand”; to “lay the cards on the table”; to “be dealt a bad [or good] hand”; to “trump” someone; to play to one’s “strong [or weak] suit”: to “have a difficult hand to play,” and others.

Our guess is that “a hand in the game” is one more.

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