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Fashion

Glove Idioms

Object explores a pair of idioms that feature gloves and their history.

Photos by:

Yash Srivastava

Words by:

Amit Sihag

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On Merriam-Webster, wedged in between “Guinea pig” and “Hawsehole" (a nautical term denoting a feature in ships), there is the idiom “Hand in glove.” According to the dictionary, the word was first used in 1664. Different dictionaries peg the origin of the idiom in different years; different centuries even. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the earliest mention of  “hand in glove” that it could find was in 1737, in the writing of one E. Smith. 

Arguably the most interesting usage of the phrase is in a book sleuthing the actions of the famous Russian Rasputin. It is called The Minister of Evil: The Secret History of Rasputin’s Betrayal of Russia published in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution and exactly sixty years before Rasputin was to be declared “Russia’s greatest love machine” by the sexy and sonorous Boney M. The Ministry of Evil is a sensationalist account of the reasons behind the revolution as recounted by a writer called William Le Queux. It focuses on the controversial and enigmatic figure of Grigori Rasputin and his influence on the Russian Imperial Court in those times. The book presents Rasputin as a malevolent force whose actions contributed significantly to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the destabilisation of Russia, ultimately leading to a revolution. A total of six people have been accused of being “hand-in-glove” with each other and Rasputin himself has been said to be hand-in-glove with a certain madame. 

Coincidentally, usage of the idiom witnessed a sharp rise between the 1910s and the 1950s in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Between these two decades is a period in history full of war and intrigue: beginning with the world wars (the first world war started in 1914) and ending with the cold war well underway (the cold war started in 1947). It is no surprise that “Hand in Glove” entered common usage during this period. With all the spying and scheming that was underway in this period of turmoil, the idiom would have seen a natural spike in its usage and its current meaning would have easily cemented itself in the literature of the time. 

It’s also worth noting how strange it is for two similar sounding idioms to have entirely different histories. The idiom “fits like a glove” has a completely different origin story from “hand in glove”, and the first documented usage of this idiom was seen in the book The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by a writer named Tobias Smollett. Published in 1771, the book is an epistolary novel that chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a group of travellers as they journey across eighteenth century Britain. The story is told through a series of letters written by various characters, offering rich insights into the society of the time. In one of these letters there is a boot which fits the character “like a glove” and we’re left wondering how Smollett could come up with such an ingenious comparison. Smollett found himself (unknowingly) in charge of a moment in history where gloves might have fitted “like a boot” but they did not. But we’re reasonably sure that this is because of the way a glove wraps around all of one’s fingers, something that boots–regrettably–don’t do.

Yash Srivastava

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