My initial guess was that the only difference in definitions between ham-handed and ham-fisted was going to be that the latter would be more, I don’t know, clenched? [Insert annoyed groan here]
Merriam-Webster: lacking dexterity or grace.
First known use: 1918
wiktionary: Clumsy, heavy, or inept; not delicate, light or gentle
See also: ham-fisted
Dictionary.com: clumsy, inept, or heavy-handed: a ham-handed approach to dealing with people that hurts a lot of feelings.
Synonyms: ham-fisted (British)
First known use: 1928
wiktionary: Lacking skill in physical movement, especially with the hands
The Free Dictionary: lacking skill with the hands; lacking skill in the way that you deal with people
ham-fisted (British) also ham-handed (American)
Some folks think there’s some ambiguity about the phrases, but I don’t see it. I think the heavy-handedness of Dictionary.com’s ham-handed definition deals with hands that are literally heavy, not figuratively heavy, which would imply being overbearing. But that’s only my opinion.
The online etymology dictionary describes the differences, such as they are, thusly: Ham-fisted (1928) was originally in reference to pilots who were heavy on the controls, as was ham-handed (by 1918). So we have yet another reference to the first appearance of each phrase, but no distinction between one being British and the other American as several of the above sources mention. If anyone can hunt down the original source, I’d love to see them.
I honestly wish the insightful Paul Brians had a list of idioms like the one he maintains for common errors in English. Great resource. I’d also take an entry from Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words, but it doesn’t exist as of yet.
In the absence of any definitive link to the actual first appearance of either phrase, here’s a neat Google Ngram that shows how the phrases have been used in print over the years. Please note that the phrases are non-hyphenated (see what I did there?) so your mileage may vary (YMMV).
Lastly, there’s good evidence that both phrases have moved beyond their more literal meanings dealing mostly with physicality to being acceptable as phrases describing someone’s demeanor, attitude and ability in social situations as well. Not a big leap, but I thought it bore mentioning.
Don’t like this post? Maybe I’m just a ham-handed/ham-fisted blogger.
Enjoy your Wednesday!