Get one’s hands dirty

Get one’s hands dirty is an idiom with an uncertain origin. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beating around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, Achilles heel, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the definition of the expression get one’s hands dirty, when it first appeared, related phrases, and some examples of its use in sentences.

The idiom get one’s hands dirty has two distinct definitions. First, to get one’s hands dirty may mean to do hard physical labor, to take on a job that involves manual labor, to do an unpleasant job, to work hard. The idea is that one is doing a job that makes one’s hands physically dirty, such as digging a ditch or washing a window. The phrase get one’s hands dirty takes on a more idiomatic meaning when referring to a job that is simply difficult, or that no one else wants to do. For instance, when a CEO comes out of his office to work with employees who are doing mundane, difficult work such as calling clients or writing reports, he may be considered to be getting his hands dirty. He is doing everyday labor that is difficult and that no one else wants to do, though his hands are not getting physically dirty. The idiom get one’s hands dirty may also describe a situation in which someone is partaking in something illegal or immoral. For instance, a policeman who is taking bribes is getting his hands dirty. Such a corrupt person is often simply referred to as dirty. The idiom one’s hands are clean is often used to mean that the subject is not corrupt or that the subject has done nothing wrong. The idiom get one’s hands dirty appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, but its exact origin is unknown. Related phrases are gets one’s hands dirty, got one’s hands dirty, getting one’s hands dirty.


“Are you willing to get your hands dirty to discover more?” the website asked, effectively comparing the act of opening a box of chocolates to searching for ancient relics. (The New York Times)

Asked what message she would send to lawmakers, Torres said, “I would tell them, y’all need to come and get your hands dirty, and you need to come down and see for yourself what is going on in these communities, in our communities, in the communities that you represent.” (The Houston PUblic Media)

Just a few days ago Giuliani popped up on CNN to insist that he “never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or between people in the campaign” between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that he specifically meant the President hadn’t got his hands dirty with any of it. (Esquire Magazine)

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