I sent the following text message this morning:
"I'm getting really good at killing fruit flies with my bare hands."
It’s true; I’ve snagged two of them recently, my fist closing quickly like the tongue of a frog, and I intend to keep practicing.
But as soon as I sent it I realized how strange this usage is — had I been, perhaps, wearing gloves, I still would have made the same boast. Which in turn made me wonder, why do we use “bare hands” to mean “without tools”, but “bare feet” to mean only, literally, without shoes or socks?
One theory is, of course, that “bare feet” could also mean “without tools” but seeing as the only “tools” our feet engage with are socks and shoes, it’s one and the same. Without opposable thumbs, anyway, we can’t very well go around using fly swatters with our feet, and bare-footed fruit fly patrol sounds more like secretly stalking fruit flies than productively eradicating pests.
Another more likely scenario is that “without tools” is a metaphoric extension of the meaning of “bare”; if “bare feet” means “just the feet”, then “bare hands” can mean “just the hands”. It is, after all, not the English language’s fault that we don’t have opposable toes. “Bare” in general means to be unshod, unclothed, uncovered, exposed, without the expected things: “bare branches”, “bare arms”, “bare skin”. (“Bare bones” is a weird exception: it’s not about the “bones” at all and functions as a compound (predicate) adjective, so doesn’t fit this pattern.)
“Bare hands” can, of course, refer to actually bare, un-gloved hands. But it is the usage in which it means “without tools”, “hands only”, that is most interesting. In all of the following, “with [his/their/etc] bare hands” could easily be substituted with “without tools”:
“Well, unless he is crushing a favorite character’s skull with his bare hands.”
“He strangled it with his bare hands.”
“My Father Fishes with His Bare Hands”
“I catch rattlesnakes with my bare hands.”
“Other prisoners broke out any way they could, many punching with their bare hands through the corrugated metal roofs and jumping.”
“Fishing for salmon with his bare hands.”
“… how users could squeeze the juice packs with their bare hands without the use of the machine made by Juicero …”
“…the moon, split the atom or build a new stadium for Kroenke with their bare hands.”
“No, I can’t believe you’re destroying the cake with your bare hands.“
“ mile beneath the surface of the ocean to cap an oil well with his bare hands.”
“I will most likely never build a cherry pine bed with my bare hands.”
“I wanted to tear it down with my bare hands.”
(All examples from BYU’s COCA.)
In comparison, “with bare feet” doesn’t take the same substitution. This metaphoric usage has created the understanding that “with bare hands” can mean not only un-gloved hands but also hands devoid of tools, but the construction doesn’t extend to other things that might be bared.
It is not the bareness of the hands that prompts us to understand the usage in this way; it is that bare in this context means something slightly different than the typical usage, which we understand from surrounding context. We know (or can interpret) that these feats typically require something more than one’s physical strength, likely a tool of some sort. The bareness of the hands, in the conventional meaning, is irrelevant to these usages.
We (presumably) know that gloves don’t particularly assist during skull-crushing. If someone boasted of having crushed a skull with gloved hands, we would (1) wonder why the gloves matter, and (2) be equally as scared/impressed as if they had boasted of doing so with bare hands. We know, then, that by boasting of having crushed a skull with bare hands, that the crusher is a person of extraordinary strength (or, perhaps, anger).
We know that catching fish usually requires a fishing rod or a net, so to catch a fish with one’s bare hands — whether the skin is bare or not — requires extraordinary skill.
We can certainly juice lemons with our (gloved or un-gloved) bare hands, and we recognize that this is a more difficult undertaking than juicing them with a juicer.
We may in fact expect that if someone declares that they have juiced lemons that they have done so with a juicer. By saying they’ve done so with bare hands, we know to notice the achievement as something out of the ordinary, remarkable, in some way. For most feats requiring or typically employing tools, our baseline assumption is that they are performed with those tools. Such feats do not require specification of the tool used unless the tool utilized is something out of the ordinary. “I tightened a screw” employs a screwdriver, but “I tightened a screw with a credit card” is somewhat unusual; “I pulled out a nail” implies use of a hammer, but “I pulled out a nail with a screwdriver” specifies the abnormal case; “I strangled a man” implies use of rope or cord (etc.), while “I strangled a man with a daisy chain” would be one hell of a daisy chain.
“With bare hands” is a way to mark a feat or achievement as something quite spectacular or at least noteworthy or requiring clarification. One would never say “I made my bed with my bare hands” (we would be more surprised that I am making my bed at all, rather than that I am making it with only my hands), since making one’s bed does not in the usual case require a particular tool or machine for assistance. That is, “bare hands” or “just one’s hands” are the usual and predicted “tools” for bed-making. “I smashed an ant with my bare hands” is an unnecessary but allowable specification; ants are particularly easy to smash with only my hands, and it would be somewhat more noteworthy had I smashed an ant with a rock. (Perhaps these are equally easy, and equally uninteresting, feats.) On the contrary, “I killed a bear” likely presumes use of a weapon in the general case, and is very different than “I defeated a bear with my bare hands”. Both are somewhat impressive depending on the weapon used (a gun less impressive than a knife, for example), but “with my bare hands” marks the achievement as particularly impressive.
In contrast to the typical meaning of “bare”, common in patterns like “bare foot” or “bare skin”, “bare hands” is often used in the additional case to signify an unexpected and noteworthy achievement. To describe the execution of a task that typically requires tools as having been performed “with bare hands” — sans tools, a somewhat metaphoric expansion of the common meaning of “bare” — marks the achievement of that task as something extraordinary.
And to the bare-handed bear killers everywhere: we’re not that impressed, so next time, try killing that bear bare-footed, too.