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hands The major purpose of the forelimbs in most vertebrates is locomotion; humans are an exception. Bipedality freed the forelimbs and allowed development of the hands as highly specialized appendages with great dexterity. The hands and the brain are believed to have co-evolved, and both are associated with the appearance of language, tools, and other signs of advanced intelligence. Refinement and exploitation of tools required a hand that had both power and precision: a ‘power grip’ for grasping a branch or broom handle and a ‘precision grip’ for picking up small objects, or in writing or painting. The crucial evolutionary step in this regard was the arrangement of muscles, bones, and joints to allow the movement known as opposition — the ability to bring the thumb across to meet any of the fingers. Also in primates, the presence of nails rather than claws on the tip of the digits assists manipulation.

Structure and movement

Movements of each hand are initiated from a localized region of the opposite side of the brain (in the grey matter of cerebral cortex); thence nerve fibres pass down, cross to the other side, relay, and emerge from the spinal cord in the neck, and are distributed in the nerves of the arms to the muscles of the forearms and the hands. This is the means of activation, but the control of the movements depends essentially, like all movements, on sensory messages from the skin, the muscles, and the joints returning to the spinal cord and brain, as well as on the influence of other parts of the brain.

Muscles which have their main bulk in the forearm end in tendons (sinews) that reach across the wrist — back, front, thumb-side — to be attached to the bones of the wrist, hand fingers, and thumb (carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges). Contraction of these different muscles can thus variously extend or flex the wrist, and straighten or curl up the thumb or the fingers. Personal observation will confirm that each finger cannot be moved entirely independently in this way, because of fibrous links between tendons where they traverse the hand. For the pull of the tendons to be effective, they must be held firmly close to the joints which they cross, or else they would spring out beneath the flexible skin; they also each require a frictionless tube in which to move — provided by a lubricated sheath of tissue which passes through the tough fibrous retaining tunnels at the wrist and all the way to the furthest bone of each finger. The strength of the grip depends essentially on the strength of the forearm muscles. The hand also has its own intrinsic muscles. The ones which flex the thumb and ‘oppose’ it to the fingers (for picking up and holding) lie at its base; their opposite number on the little-finger side flexes that finger and also takes part in cupping the palm and closing the grip. Deep in the palm there are other small muscles between the metacarpal bones. Blood vessels and nerves branch from the main ones at the wrist to supply the hand muscles as well as the joints and the skin.

The hands are exquisitely sensitive. It is common knowledge that they are the best tools for feeling texture, assessing temperature, or recognizing objects by their feel when they cannot be seen; bad for the pain of a pinprick or insect bite but good for locating it exactly. This finesse and discrimination is due to the greater density of sensory receptors in the skin compared with other parts of the body surface, serving sensations of heat, cold, pressure, and pain, and to the disproportionately large area of the sensory cerebral cortex devoted to the hand. The skin is also well provided with sweat glands, especially on the palms.

The hand in history and culture

The hand was also a common unit of measure used by ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The Egyptian hand was a subunit of the royal cubit (524 mm), the most widely used standard of measure in the ancient world. The basic subunit was the digit, presumably the width of a finger; four digits equaled a palm, five a hand. Based on a statue of King Henry VIII, the British hand was established as four inches. The hand is still occasionally used today, most notably to measure the height of a horse from the ground to the high point of its back at the base of the neck.

The fingers bear unique and identifying marks, and fingerprinting has been one of the most reliable forms of identification, used in China since 700 ce, and since the 1880s in Britain, mainly for criminal and police records. The patterns of whorls, arches, and loops on the ends of the fingers are unique to each person, and virtually indelible since superficial burns, cuts, or abrasions do not alter them. The hand- and footprints of infants may also be recorded for purposes of identification because they do not change with growth or age. A site of aesthetic expression, Ancient Egyptian women decorated their hands and also their feet with elaborate and intricate designs in henna. This practice is still part of Middle Eastern cultures today, particularly for special occasions such as weddings, when along with the bride, her mother, aunts, and friends will henna themselves as well. Recently, having one's hands decorated with designs in henna has become more popular in the United States.

Hand gestures, from sign language to the thumbs-up to seemingly universal obscene gestures, carry an infinite number of meanings. ‘To lend a hand’ means to help; ‘to give a hand to’ however, has an ambiguous sense of both to help, but also to applaud. An open hand is a symbol of generosity, and shaking right hands is a common greeting, especially among European and American men. The handshake, however, originated in seventeenth-century Holland, not as a greeting, but as a symbol of reconciliation. After a dispute had been settled by an official local arbiter, he would ask the parties involved to shake hands, as a sign that each regarded the other as an honest man and asked for forgiveness. As a gesture made between equals, the handshake was adopted by radical Protestant sects such as the Quakers who rejected traditional forms of greeting, like bowing, which stressed deference to social superiors. The handshake remains an egalitarian gesture of goodwill, though it was only during the nineteenth century that the handshake as a sign of greeting, friendship, or respect appeared in England and slowly spread throughout Europe. Traditionally, however, men did not shake, but kissed, the right hand of women in greeting.

The position of the hand, and especially of the fingers, is significant in religious practices, such as in Christian blessings, when one makes the sign of the cross, or raises the first two fingers when giving a blessing. Hands are often raised in prayer, the worshipper symbolically reaching toward heaven. The prayer position of both hands pressed together, pointing upward, is a symbol of the flame, and is used by Roman Catholics, Hindus, and Buddhists alike. The position of the hands also has significance in Hindu and Buddhist meditation (mudrās); for instance Buddhists sometimes assume the position of Buddha when he called on the earth to witness his own enlightenment: left hand open in his lap, palm up, and right hand with the palm down, fingertips resting on the ground. In Buddhist iconography, the right and left hands joined together represents the union of wisdom and compassion.

The left hand has been associated with that which is base or evil. For instance, the left hand is considered dirty in Muslim and Hindu cultures, among others, as it is often the hand used to wash oneself after defecating. The left hand is associated with being ‘sinister’, which means both ‘threatening evil’ and simply ‘on the left’. Thus, a left-handed compliment is one which conceals an insult. Until very recently, left-handedness in children was often discouraged, and even punished, by parents and educators.

Fingers are also the site of cultural expression, such as rings, which are worn both for decoration, but also as signs of status. In early modern Europe, a man's insignia, his seal, might be worn on a ring. Betrothal rings are believed to have originated in ancient Rome. The Roman Catholic Church still awards episcopal rings to bishops, and papal rings to popes and cardinals. These, and the rings of kings, are traditionally kissed in deference. Most common today are school rings, friendship rings, and wedding rings.

On a more sober note, in several cultures, particularly some Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and African Bushmen, among others, the first joint, or sometimes the entire finger, is amputated, as a sign of mourning. It is often young girls and women whose hands are thus mutilated. European Palaeolithic cave paintings of hands without digits indicate that this practice may be very ancient. Some ancient law also required the amputation of the hand as punishment for theft; this is still practised in some Islamic countries today.

Sarah Goodfellow, and Sheila Jennett


Bremmer, J. and Rooderburg, H. (ed.) (1991). A cultural history of gesture: from antiquity to the present day. Polity Press, Cambridge.

See musculo-skeletal system.See also gestures; movement, control of; musicianship and other finger skills.

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194. Hands

See also 14. ANATOMY ; 51. BODY, HUMAN ; 161. FINGERS and TOES .

1. the ability to use both hands equally well.
2. an unusual cleverness.
3. deceitfulness. Also ambidexterity. ambidextrous, adj.
a pain in the hand.
a friction caused by rubbing skin with the hand; massage.
a beautifying of the hands. chirocosmetic, adj.
chirognomy, cheirognomy
the theories and activity of palmistry. chirognomist, cheirognomist, n.
chirology, cheirology
Rare. the study of the hands.
chiromancy, cheiromancy
plastic surgery of the hand.
the imposition of hands, usually on the head, in certain rituals, as confirmation and ordination.
1. Ecclesiastic. the extending of the hands in blessing during certain rituals.
2. an election by show of hands.
the state of left-handedness.
the art of telling a persons character, past, or future by the lines, marks, and mounts on his palms. Also called chiromancy. palmist, n.
the condition of having five digits on each hand and foot. pendactylate, pendactylic, pendactylous, adj.
the condition of having more than the usual number of digits on a hand or foot which are also excessively large and uneven. perisso-dactylate, perissodactylic, perissodactylous, adj.
the condition of having more than a normal number of fingers or toes. polydactylous, adj.
the performance of tricks and illusions by the quick and skillful use of the hands; conjuring; sleight of hand. Also called prestigiation . prestidigitator, n. prestidigitatorial, prestidigitatory, adj.
an animal, as a monkey, having four hands. quadrumanous, adj.
the condition of having six fingers on each hand.
a person who has six fingers or six toes.
the condition of being left-handed. sinistral, adj.
the union of two or more digits, common in many birds such as kingfishers and hornbills. syndactylic, adj. syndactyly, n.

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hands all hands on deck a cry or signal used on board ship, typically in an emergency, to indicate that all crew members are to go on deck.
hands across the sea promoting closer international links is recorded from the late 19th century.
a safe pair of hands used to denote someone who is capable, reliable, or trustworthy in the management of a situation. (In a sporting context, used to refer to someone who is reliable when catching a ball.)

See also cold hands, warm heart, the eye of a master does more work than both his hands, hand, many hands make light work, wash one's hands of.

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