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Winning Hands Down

Posted by Bruce Kahl on January 17, 2003

In Reply to: Winning Hands Down posted by A Ruben on January 17, 2003

: It occured to me that the phrase "winning hands down" was a biblical reference in Exodus... When the Hebrews were in battle, Moses kept his arms up... and when he put his arms down, the Hebrews began to lose... Therefore winning with hands down means an easy win..

: Al Ruben
: Evanston, Illinois

From the Word Detective:

"Hands down" means, of course, "easily" or "with little or no effort," and it's most often heard in the context of someone or something "winning hands down." Surveys of consumer products in which one product clearly outclasses the others almost invariably announce that "The Gizmo 2000 won hands down" or the like, often coupled with the phrase "no contest."

When I first considered "hands down," I wondered if this phrase might have come from card playing, perhaps in reference to losing players being so discouraged by the winning player's overwhelmingly superior "hand" that they cast theirs down on the table in disgust. Or perhaps, I thought, "hands down" originally referred to one party in a fistfight or boxing match dropping his hands from fighting posture as a signal of surrender.

Proud as I am of those theories, however, I was happy to find the real answer in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Hands down," it seems, dates back to the mid-19th century and harks, not from card-playing or schoolyard fisticuffs, but from the genteel world of horseracing. A jockey nearing the finish line well ahead of the competition, with victory certain, would often relax his posture and drop his hands, relaxing his hold on the reins, as his steed galloped the final few yards. To win a race "hands down," therefore, was to win it easily, without any serious competition, and by the late 19th century the phrase was being used in non-racing contexts to mean "with no trouble at all."

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