Lesedauer: 4 min
- 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 deception: not 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.