Lesedauer: 4 min



Summary

  • In the U.S., for the meaning ‘marked by secrecy or dishonesty’ underhanded is by far commoner than underhand.
  • Underhand is also used in the U.S. with that meaning, but only rarely. Much more often it has a physical meaning.
  • In the UK, underhand is much more often used to convey that ‘dishonest’ meaning, but underhanded is also an option.

Underhanded or underhand?

I’ve been reviewing someone else’s translation from Spanish of a major Latin American classic. That puts me in the luxuriously smug position of avoiding the donkey work and hard grind yet being able to point out and wag the finger that the translator has, for example, taken an idiom quite literally, word for word, and come up with nonsense.

Having now found so many such schoolboy howlers, I examine every word against the original Spanish with hawk-like severity.

So it was that when I came across the phrase ‘underhanded methods’, I paused.

Shurely shome mishtake’, I thought, to use that old Private Eye chestnut. You’ve got carried away again, dear (American) translator. The word is underhand.

Except it’s not…if you’re American, as I was soon to discover.

In fact, if you’re American, underhand will probably sound daft and underhanded normal, and vice versa, if you’re British.



What say the dictionaries?

Go to Merriam-Webster online, look up underhanded as an adjective, and you will find it rather beautifully defined as ‘marked by secrecy, chicanery, and deceptionnot honest and aboveboard’ (pedants, please note that U.S. spelling of above board as a solid [a term that sounds vaguely lavatorial; I digress]).

Go to underhand (adj.) in the same dictionary, and you will find it given three meanings: 1. = underhanded, 2. done so as to evade notice, and 3. made with the hand brought forward and up from below the shoulder level.

e.g. an underhand serve.

(Quite why underhanded does not share meaning 2., I won’t investigate.)

The above two M-W entries reflect U.S. usage rather accurately. Underhand can be used to mean ‘not honest’, as in underhand methods, but very much more often it is used, as the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows, to mean ‘underarm’.

Similarly, if you go to Oxford Online, the U.S. version, and look for underhand, the first meaning given is the ‘(Of a throw or stroke in sports) made with the arm or hand below shoulder level’ one, and the ‘dishonest’ meaning is given only third. The second meaning is ‘With the palm of the hand upward or outward’ as in underhand grip.

Underhanded is defined along the same lines as M-W: ‘Acting or done in a secret or dishonest way’.

If you go to the Oxford Online UK version, it clearly reflects this Atlantic divide: the first meaning for underhand is the ‘dishonest’ one, and the second meaning is a (less frequent) synonym in British English for underarm. If you go to underhanded you get the message ‘another form of underhand.’

‘The science bit’

Dictionaries seem to have got the measure of these differences.

In confirmation of what they say, in the OEC (Feb. 2014) underhand as adjective appears nearly one thousand (977) times, of which 500 are British English and a mere 137 U.S. English. Of those 500 British ones, all but a handful are to do with ‘dishonesty’.  Of those 137 U.S. ones, hardly any are to do with ‘dishonesty’, and the most frequent phrase is underhand grip.

Similarly, the Brigham Young University Corpus of Contemporary American shows, for example, underhanded tactics 22 times, but underhand tactics never, whereas underhand grip appears 34 times.

Finally, the Hansard Corpus – of British English, obviously – with data from 1803 to 2006, has underhanded 68 times but underhand 1216 times. So underhanded is a possibility, but not a common one, e.g. from 2002,

the Trade Union side wished to record its dissent over the deceitful and underhanded way in which this issue has been handled.

(This is by a Scottish MP, which may or may not have a bearing.)

The history bit

Underhand as an adverb goes back to Old English (c. AD 1000) in a now obsolete meaning.
The adjective came later, 1545, in the physical meaning, in this case, relating to archery, and 1592 in the meaning ‘secret, clandestine, surreptitious’. The meaning of ‘not straightforward’, which is an integral part of its modern meaning, did not appear until 1842, in Cardinal Newman’s letters:

1842   J. H. Newman Lett. & Corr. (1891) II. 393

I am often accused of being underhand and uncandid.

Underhanded as adverb makes its appearance in 1822/23, in two different meanings, but the adjective first appears in Dickens, according to the OED, in the meaning ‘surreptitious’ in Bleak House (1853):  xxxvii. 370

Under-handed charges against John Jarndyce.

and in the meaning ‘not straightforward’ in Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. ii. vii. 232

That’s an under-handed mind, sir.

Lady Dedlock, Esther Summerson and ‘Charley’ (Charlotte) in the wood. Phiz’s illustration from Bleak House.

 

6 Comments

  1. Interesting, thanks. One the other way ie the US has the -ed, the UK doesn’t — I’ve found that often, informal US speech will drop the -ed, I presume because the informal vocabulary is being learned by hearing, which is imperfect. e.g. “He’s very tan”, not “He’s very tanned” to describe someone who’s been sunbathing. And “He’s renown”, not “He’s renowned”. Don’t know how common the incorrect (well, to me) usage is but I hear and read it fairly often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi. Margaret, I hope all’s well with you, and thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’re right about the reasons, i.e. ‘oral transmission’ or ‘only heard, never read.’ Your examples fall under the category of t/d deletion (that is, the sound, e.g. /rɪˈnaʊnd/, knock off the d and you have…). That accounts for many eggcorns too, as I’ve noted in a blog somewhere. Just found it: doggy-dog world, coal-hearted, bran new.

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  2. On a similar note, Jeremy, I am seeing (& getting annoyed by) the Australian media’s use of “looked over” for “overlooked”. I wonder if this is an Americanism they have picked up from all the discussion about Trump? Or maybe some smart young Aussie journo came up with it, and others have picked it up because it sounds “cool”. A state MP managed to offend Australian people who had lost family members when the plane MH17 was downed, killing 38 Australians. MP Craig Kelly suggested some things “should be looked over”, implying the MH!7 downing was not important if the West wants to negotiate with Putin.

    Clearly he was not aware of the difference between “looking something over” and “overlooking something”.

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  3. Thanks, Sue, that’s interesting. I must into look it. Joking apart, it creates the potential for ambiguity. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another case of a prefix being sundered from its verb and placed after it. I really can’t stand under why it’s happened. The reverse is usually the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting. I’d never thought that for us North Americans, a softball pitch is always underhand, but rarely underhanded. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that late 19th US usage guides label underhanded a vulgarism. They quote Edward Gould’s Good English (1867). I can’t find any earlier proscription, and none after about 1900.

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