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{Come, Bring, Get} to grips


I like this idiom and would like to know it more. I venture that patrons of this forum may have access to etymological reference works. Perhaps someone will look this up, thanks.

Here're my useful findings, to present, Etymonline's entry for tackle notes for that verb that

The meaning "lay hold of, come to grips with, attack" is attested from 1828, described by Webster that year as "a common popular use of the word in New England, though not elegant;" figurative sense of "try to deal with" (a task or problem) is from 1840. The verb in the sporting sense first recorded 1867, "to seize and stop.

The 1828 edition is Webster's first, so the phrase is not as modern as Google's ngram search would suggest. Google's trail begins in the second decade of the 20th with a broad enough variety of sources' interests and locations, in my an-amateur-as-of-this-morning opinion, to corroborate a wide and continuing usage going into that decade. That is, it's not in the records of the South Australian Parliament, an English aeronautical journal, a federal Bureau's ethnology report, a translation of the memoirs of Babur, and the quotes of a fraternity periodical because the idiom had been unheard (though unattested with Google) for the 90 years since Webster noted it.

Actually, adjusting the date range further back (which I just learned is a thing I can do), Google ngram has this idea at least from the 16th century, gaining the slightest notoriety again in 1765. But it can't say where it has this idea from before 1911. I tried to find what might have been published in English in 1524, such as one Robert Copland's "Epilogue to the Syege of Rodes," but no dice.

So, I think, its original sense refers to some historical combat. One easily speculates that the allusion was always to some form of wrestling to denote situations of literal or psychological combat. However, I would be interested to know more about the time and context of the phrase's origins to better my speculation. For instance, were its origins early modern, I might suppose that the grips were always metaphorical, while a medieval trail for the phrase would suggest it drew on literal mano a mano situations. Then again, the idiom could be a borrowing from another language for all I know so far.

EDIT: I did something wrong when posting; not sure, but maybe two of these topics will appear. Sorry.


  • edited March 2018

    The OED lists together

    at grips 'in close combat'; 'hand to hand'
    to come to grips: 'to come to close quarters'.
    in grips: 'in custody'.

    The quotations they use to illustrate this are

    1640 S. Rutherford Lett. (1894) ccxciv. 593 When ye come to grips with death, the king of terrors.
    1818 Scott Heart of Mid-Lothian v, in Tales of my Landlord 2nd Ser. II. 109 You and I will..see him in grips or we are done wi' him.
    1857 T. Hughes Tom Brown's School Days (1871) ii. iii. 248 At grips with self and the devil.
    1893 R. L. Stevenson Catriona iv. 43 I saw we were come to grips at last.
    1895 Sat. Rev. 21 Sept. 366/2 The British now at grips with world-wide competition.

    They equate at grips with at handgrips. They define

    handgrip n
    An act of grasping or seizing with the hand, esp. when fighting; a grip, a grasp. Now chiefly in phrases, as to come to handgrips, to be at (also in) handgrips, etc.

    Handgrip is a very old fighting term in English. The earliest use found by the OED is in Beowulf.

  • The comment above is by me. dcrosbie551 does not exist

  • Vir27Vir27
    edited March 2018

    Wonderful! I conclude via Beowulf that the "original" metaphor, as far as the English language is concerned and presumably as far as any predecessor is concerned, is for literal mano a mano rather than being either a metaphorical or sporting combat.

    Thanks, Mr. Crosbie.

    Also, though I guess no one will ever mind, I just noticed that where above I said "fraternity," I know I did mean 'sorority.'

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited March 2018

    The Beowulf quote is

    He for handgripe minum scolde licgean lifbysig.

    Literally, So that because of my hand-grip he had to lie down busy for life

    In Seamus Heaney's translation

    My plan was to pounce, pin him down
    in a tight grip and grapple him to death —
    have him panting for life, powerless and clasped
    in my bare hands, his body in thrall.

    Quotations for handgrip after Beowulf seems to denote physical wresting until the nineteenth century uses seen in these quotes

    1834 T. Carlyle Sartor Resartus ii. iv. 45/2 Now at actual handgrips with Destiny herself.
    1858 Frederick the Great (1865) I. iv. ii. 281 The Bridge of Cassano; where Eugene and Vendôme came to handgrips.
    1890 Atlantic Monthly May 615/2 Sir Peter, now almost at handgrips with starvation, lives on false promises and vain hopes.

    Thanks very much for the Awesome click, Vir 27. Ironically, it goes to the non-existent dcrosbie551. Do you think you could transfer it to a post in my name?

  • You're welcome! Thanks for the pertinent info.

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