Where Did the Phrase 'Look Ma, No Hands!' Originate?

Don't do it, kid.
Don't do it, kid. / Morsa Images/DigitalVision via Getty Images

We’ve all been there: Face down on asphalt after deluding ourselves into believing we had the physical aptitude to a ride a bicycle without touching the handlebars. One way of boasting of this imminent disaster is to shout, “Look Ma, no hands!” just before eating pavement.

But where did this phrase originate?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase as “…a boastful cry (originally and typically by a child to a parent or other adult) seeking attention or admiration for performing a difficult or complicated activity (often cycling) hands-free.” The OED cites the first use of it in a 1937 newspaper cartoon. In the Fritzi Ritz strip by Ernie Bushmiller, who took it over and shortly adapted it to focus more on Fritzi’s dead-eyed niece Nancy, a child is seen riding a bike without touching the handlebars while exclaiming “Yippee! Look Aunt Fritzi—no hands!!”

Whether the cartoon was emulating something children were already doing or whether it influenced children to do it is open to interpretation. Either way, the 1940s brought more print mentions of the phrase or variations of it. While ostensibly meant to be humorous, it was also useful as a cautionary tale, as in the case of this excerpt from The Tatler and Bystander in London:

A small boy had just had a new bicycle and was proudly showing it off. His mother stood at the gate and watched him. He shot off up the road, and on the return journey he had his hands off the handlebars.

“Look, mum—no hands!” he shouted proudly.

“Oh, do be careful dear,” said his mother. “You’ll hurt yourself."

The lad grinned cheerfully, and cycled up the road again. The next time his mother saw him, his feet were swinging loose in the air.

“Look, mum—no feet!"

Again his mother protested feebly, but off he shot again. He didn’t come back quite so quickly this time, and when he did, he called out, not quite so cheerfully: “Look mum—no teeth!”

[h/t word histories]

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