ham-handed vs. ham-fisted
…Two more words that mean the same thing—or do they?. Definition, from merriam-webster.com:
lacking dexterity or grace.
Now, if you think of someone with a giant rump of pork for a hand, the meaning flows rather intuitively. “I’ve invested years in piano lessons, but I’m too ham-handed to ever be any good.”
But if you think of the expression in place of a fist, the meaning seems to change a bit. Indeed, anyone who’s trying act with “dexterity or grace” is going to be using his hand, not a closed fist. “I’m too ham-fisted to be any good at the piano.” Well, sir, you can leave the ham out of it; you oughtn’t take any fists to the enterprise to start with.
So this explains why dictionary.com gives a different definition:
clumsy, inept, or heavy-handed: a ham-handed approach to dealing with people that hurts a lot of feelings.
This is a sneaky entry—indeed, each of “clumsy,” “inept,” and “heavy-handed” have quite different meanings. It renders the example quite ambiguous: are people’s feelings getting hurt because this person is clumsy in the execution? Or because he’s a demanding and impatient?
These words are both fun to say, and it would be a shame if we rendered them useless because we failed to make up our minds what they mean.