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Q From Robert L Sharp: I love the Economist, the only publication I read that gives me at least one word per issue that I have to look up. One obvious Briticism puzzles me. I wonder about the source of “an attempt to make a better fist of it.” Understandable, but fist?

A Phrases such as good fist, better fist and poor fist all refer to degrees of competence in attempting something. If you make a good fist of something, you’re doing it to the required degree of success. An example appeared in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette recently: “Music star Timberlake makes a pretty good fist of this acting lark but Yelchin is the real star of the show.” Contrarily, if you make a poor fist of a task you are incompetent or inadequate at it.

In various forms, it goes back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Fist in such expressions is closely related to figurative senses of hand, as a factory workman would be described as a hand, or in phrases such as to give somebody a hand. To make a fist was to have a go at some task or enterprise, to try doing it, the idea being in some manner to get to grips with it. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Caroline Gilman’s Recollections of a Southern Matron (1838): “He reckoned he should make a better fist at farming than edicating.” It also notes a book of 1880 by William D Howells, The Undiscovered Country: “Mrs. Burton is really making a very pretty fist at a salon.”

Direct references to the skilfulness of the hand came in the expression write a good fist, meaning to have legible handwriting or write well (“‘I’ve a good mind to read you my letter,’ said he. ‘I’ve a good fist with a pen when I choose.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, The Ebb Tide (1894)), and in the telegraphers’ and radio operators’ term fist for the characteristic keying of a Morse key, the personal touch by which experienced operators could often be recognised; someone who sent clear and easily-understood Morse code would likewise be said to have a good fist (“Students must possess a knowledge of the elementary principles of electricity and a good ‘fist’ on the Morse key” — Railway Signaling and Communications (1953)).

Confusingly enough, fist can sometimes be used by itself to mean a poor attempt or a failure; “he made a fist of that job” meant he made a complete mess of it. The OED’s first example is from The Life and Adventures of Dr Dodimus Duckworth, published in 1833 by the American writer Asa Greene. Dodimus, later a quack doctor, is an apprentice dentist at this point; in his master’s absence he tries pulling a rotten tooth, but he pulls two by mistake. His patient objects vigorously. Dodimus says coolly that he will only charge for pulling one tooth. The patient rejoins with spirit. “You had’nt ought to ax any thing for pulling either of these, seeing you’ve made such a fist of it.”

Fist used figuratively this way is these days mainly British and Commonwealth English. However, and slightly surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary says it was at first a US expression and its early examples bear that out. But the English Dialect Dictionary of a century ago noted it was northern English dialect; presumably it was taken to the US and has since returned home. My impression is that it is most often used these days on the sports pages.

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Page created 22 Sep 2007; Last updated 29 Sep 2007