Get a handle on

Get a handle on is an interesting idiom. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom get a handle on, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

To get a handle on something means to get it under control or to fully understand it. For instance, a student may be said to get a handle on his subject matter, meaning he has come to understand it. The expression get a handle on refers to gripping something firmly by its handle, which makes it difficult for that item to slip from one’s grasp. The term came into use around the 1930s with the definition that it has today. Related phrases are gets a handle, got a handle, gotten a handle, getting a handle.


Her comments come as the government tries to get a handle on the more transmissible Delta variant that has become the dominant form of COVID in the country. (Newsweek)

I still couldn’t get a handle on what was going on, but I’d entirely given up hope for anything positive coming out of the discussion. (The Atlantic)

“This is not a long-term reprieve, but this will definitely help the firefighters get a handle on the fires in the next couple of days with reduced fire behaviour,” said fire information officer Claire Allen. (Penticton Western News)

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