A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "to treat with kid gloves"?

August 8, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

A few of us down here are teeming for an answer, so we come to the all-knowing Cecil for our enlightenment (we also kinda trust the SDStaff too). What and where did the expression of "treating with kit gloves" come from? And is it mostly "kit" or "kid" gloves? I have performed a search of numerous site (including the improved Straight Dope Archive), all to no avail. Therefore, we have gone to the source of knowledge and hope to fight off this ignorance. Thanks in advance.

It's kid gloves, kid. And I'm not kidding, kiddo.

OK, so, seriously, "kid gloves" were made from the skin of a young goat or lamb or similar. Such gloves were softer and finer than gloves made from harder leathers, and so became a symbol of elegance and gentility in the early 1800s. The term "handle with kid gloves" thus means to be very gentle or tactful. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used in that sense (or written, anyway) in the 1830s.

Around the 1850s, saying that someone "wore kid gloves" was also a way of saying the person was very dainty, a person who avoided any real exertion or everyday work--far more genteel and upper class than us folk.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms raises the very interesting contrast to "handle without gloves" or "take off the gloves" to mean harsh treatment, nitty-gritty, down and dirty. They suggest that "handle without gloves" was an antonym arising from "handle with kid gloves"; however, other sources suggest that "take off the gloves" comes from boxing, where the padded gloves soften the blow, so removing the gloves suggests rough treatment.

It's interesting that the same expression should have come to be used in both the positive ("handle with kid gloves") and negative ("take off the gloves") sense. Etymology is a wonderful thing.

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