Posted by Bruce Kahl on January 30, 2000
In Reply to: Hand over fist posted by Brian Barger on January 30, 2000
: What does hand over fist mean?
The original expression was hand over hand, which was chiefly nautical and referred literally to rope work: climbing a rope, or pulling something in with a rope, would be "climbing it hand over hand," that is, with each hand brought over the other.
This was then extended figuratively to mean 'with continuous progress; with regular advances', especially as used of a ship chasing and gaining on another ship. From here it's a very small step to 'speedily; increasingly', the sense in "making money hand over fist," which is about the only way the phrase is found nowadays.
The form hand over fist, instead of the original hand over hand, is an obvious and natural variant (close your hand around a rope and you do, indeed, make a fist).
The literal use of hand over hand is recorded in English by the middle of the eighteenth century. The figurative use, and the hand over fist form (in all senses), appear by the early nineteenth century.