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The meaning and origin of the expression: Handle with kid gloves

Handle with kid gloves

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Handle with kid gloves'?

Handle a situation, or a person or an object, delicately and gingerly.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Handle with kid gloves'?

Kid gloves are, of course, gloves made from the skin of a young goat. I say 'of course' but, in fact, when they were first fashioned in the 18th century they were more often made from lambskin, as that was easier to come by. They were clearly not intended for use when you were pruning the hedge and wearing kid gloves was the sartorial equivalent of pale white skin, that is, it indicated that the wearer was rich enough to indulge in a life of genteel indoor idleness. The earliest mentions of kid gloves are from England in the 1730s and the following is a typical report of a wealthy gentleman, laid out in his 'Sunday best', from Bagnall's News, in The Ipswich Journal, December 1734:

The Corpse of Mr. Thorp, A Distiller in Soho, who died a few Days since, said to be worth £10000 was put into his Coffin, quilted within with white Sattin; and after several yards of fine Holland [best-quality linen] were wrapt about his Body... on his Head was a Cap of the same Holland tied with a white Ribbond; he has about his Neck two Yards of Cambrick; a Cambrick Handkerchief between his Hands, on which he had a pair of white Kid Gloves: and in this manner he lay in state some Days and was afterwards buried in Buckinghamshire.

Long-Wellesley Handle with kid glovesAt that time, kid gloves were viewed as rather ostentatious and only suitable for the nouveau riche - much as heavy gold chains might be viewed today. In the 19th century, kid glove wearing was taken up by a notable member of the gentry, William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the fourth Earl of Mornington, which might have been expected to establish them as a desirable accessory. The Preston Chronicle included this item in February 1837:

Mr. Long Wellesley is, also, a man of excellent taste, though he rides in kid gloves, which Brummel used to say a man should be scouted [dismissed scornfully] for doing.

The dismissal of the gloves by the socialite and fashion authority Beau Brummell was enough to send them to the back of the 19th century chav wardrobe. Incidentally, I wasn't familiar with the word 'scouted' as meaning 'scorned' and when I looked it up I found this first usage in Samuel Palmer's Moral Essays, 1710:

They pass the rhodomontade till they're expos'd and scouted.

That led me to 'rhodomontade', another word I didn't know, which turns out to mean 'to speak boastfully or bombastically'. All in all, Brummel clearly didn't think much of kid gloves and they continued not to be worn by 'persons of quality'.

In fact, the description 'kid-gloved' came to be used as an insult, implying a lack of manhood, as was recorded in The Leicester Chronicle in January 1842:

This contraband system of political allusions appears to suit the taste and nerves of the cautious, gentlemanly, kid-gloved Conservatism, which cannot endure the shock of attending a public meeting.

It was only when the expression (and presumably also, the gloves) crossed the Atlantic that the negative connotations were lost and 'handling (or treating) with kid gloves' began to be used as we use it today, that is with the meaning 'delicately; carefully'. The New-York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker has the first example of the term in print, from 1849:

"Belligerent topics are not our forte and never was; neither do we handle them with kid gloves, when they fairly come in the way."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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