Notes From Babel

ham-handed vs. ham-fisted

with 6 comments

…Two more words that mean the same thing—or do they?.  Definition, from

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 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.


Written by Tim Kowal

September 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Language

6 Responses

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  1. Too funny, ha ha.

    Where did this singular preoccupation come from, Tim? You’ve got me watching for these ambiguous synonyms, now. I hope there aren’t enough of them to inspire a mild obsession.

    It’s probably like the quarter experiment, in which a professor asks the students how many quarters they find on the ground in a week, then tells them to purposefully pay attention for them; of course, they return the following week with quarters in spades. I hope I don’t find these confused phrases all over the place. I’ll think of it all the time.



    September 17, 2010 at 10:13 am

    • Oh, I’m afraid the well is quite deep. I started a list with the intention of doing one a week, and I have nearly a year’s worth already. Lawyers use tired expressions all the time, so my tendency to want to bring them back to life can be quite a distraction.

      Tim Kowal

      September 17, 2010 at 10:18 am

      • That is far, far more than I expected. It’s frightening! Is this list in a .doc? I would be very excited to read them!

        I actually logged on just now because my girl said something that struck a chord on this subject. She accidentally said “invaluable” in the way someone would say “worthless.”

        My response was, “I think you mean ‘priceless,'” ha, ha, and immediately set down to mention it.

        It’s not in the same species as ham-fisted, but the same genus, for sure. Are those in your list?

        Anyhow, it was a minor epiphany and I was amused.


        September 18, 2010 at 1:49 pm

        • Well, I should clarify that my list is of language foibles, peccadilloes generally, and not all are of this particular sort. I had not jotted down valuable/invaluable, but I have quoted Dr. Nick elsewhere: “inflammable means flammable?? What a country!”

          Tim Kowal

          September 18, 2010 at 1:54 pm

  2. […] an amusing bit of imagery, albeit probably unintentional.  (However, I have elsewhere lodged my objection to the term “ham-fisted,” preferring “ham-handed” instead, and even then […]

  3. Ham-handed vs. Ham-fisted…

    My initial guess was that the only difference in definitions between ham-handed and ham-fisted was going to be that the latter would be more, I don’t know, clenched? [Insert annoyed groan here] ham-handed: Merriam-Webster: lacking dexterity or gr…

    Mostly Muppet

    January 19, 2011 at 9:48 am

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