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The meaning and origin of the expression: Handbags at ten paces

Handbags at ten paces

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Handbags at ten paces'?

'Handbags at ten paces', sometimes shortened just to 'handbags', is a comic reference to a confrontation which is histrionic but which doesn't involve physical violence. Such confrontations are also called handbag situations.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Handbags at ten paces'?

This British phrase might sound odd to anyone who is not familiar with the earlier pistols at ten paces, which relates to duelling. That phrase, and its counterpart pistols at dawn, were the stating of the arrangements that preceded duels. Such duels were dangerous and duellists were often killed, although the 'pistols' phrases owe more to Hollywood than historical record.

Handbags at ten pacesThe handbags at ten paces and handbags at dawn versions began to be used in the 1980s to describe confrontations between players in football matches. Professional footballers know they will be sent off if they hit another player, so emotion has to be expressed via posturing, facial grimacing and verbal abuse. The implication carried by the phrases was that, although a great deal of preamble to violence was shown, the actual confrontations were in the nature of 'I'll scratch you eyes out' cat-fights. These were typified by the many high-profile matches between Manchester United and Arsenal in the years around the turn of the millennium. These matches were usually highly charged as they often had a decisive effect on the outcome of the Premiership championship. This, coupled with the fact that many of the players had reputations for violent play but didn't want to risk getting sent off, led to several handbags at ten paces incidents.

The football manager and later commentator, Ron Atkinson, was fond of using this phrase, often shortened just to handbags. He invented several somewhat surreal footballing terms, so he may well have coined this too, although I can't find any record confirming that.

The earliest record I can find of the term in print is from a piece headed Who said what in the world of sport in 1986, in The Times 1 January 1987:

"It was a case of handbags at three paces."

Clearly, the precise number of paces isn't significant but, for the tidy minded, the first record I can find of the ten paces variant is from a report of a football game in The Sunday Times, September 1993, headed Leeds win out in battle of the brawlers:

"Kamara was booked for arguing before the referee took four names in as many minutes: Ward and Wallace for handbags at 10 paces, Deane for a hideous foul on Cowan..."

Handbags at dawnWhy handbags? Well, as well as the obvious effeminate imagery, the phrase was coined when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. She was said to give ministers who she saw as slackers a 'good handbagging', that is, a verbal dressing down.

It may also have been influenced by the Monty Python sketch - The Batley Townswomens' Guild presents the Battle of Pearl Harbor, in which the Python team, dressed as women, recreate the battle by flailing at each other with handbags.

The more recent (mid-1990s) term handbag house also calls on handbag imagery. House is a form of electronic dance music that is often relentless and uncompromising. Handbag house is a variant that has catchy tunes and wider popular appeal and as such is derided by clubbing aficionados. The allusion is to women dancing in groups around their handbags.

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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