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mob-handed

adverb / adjective British informal

in a large group, especially in a large, threatening group of people

'One theory for the recent battle is that a rival gang attempted to collect protection from the Dostlarcafé and the Bombers went there mob-handed to confront them.'

The Observer 17th November 2002

'No specific reason has ever been given for this mob-handed invasion, but the men conducting the search were allegedly told beforehand that the jail was "awash with drugs" …'

The Guardian 22nd November 2000

Nouns and noun compounds form the majority of neologisms, so the term mob-handed is interesting not least because of its status as a new adverb/adjective, a comparative rarity in the world of new words. Mob-handed is an informal term which began to establish itself in British English during the mid 1990s, and is used to describe the situation of being in large groups, especially in the context of large groups of people displaying threatening behaviour. Typical collocates of the adverb are verbs such as come, arrive, turn up, and go along/in, for example: They turned up mob-handed to show him there was no point trying to fight back. The term found its way into the 1998 edition of The New Oxford Dictionary of English, where it is defined simply as 'in considerable numbers'. This definition reflects its more general use as an informal way of describing activities involving large numbers of people or things, as illustrated in the following citation:

the term mob-handed has most likely been created by
analogy with the adverb /
adjective single-handed

'Not everybody thinks about giving blood and there is sometimes nervousness about it. Going along mob-handed created a certain amount of fun and those experienced could be seen, by the first-time donors, to be quite relaxed, which helped calm a few nerves.'

RIBI Rotary Magazine February 2003

Mob-handed is also used as an adjective, typically in attributive position, e.g. a mob-handed attack. Like the adverb, it is also used simply to refer to large groups of people, as in:

'… a mob-handed Lib Dem canvassing team …'

The Observer 13th May 2001

… and it is sometimes used in reference to people in the public eye, as an alternative way of referring to an entourage. For example:

'… he liked to be mob-handed. He liked to have a gang around him.'

The Guardian 12th March 2002

Background – mob-handed

The term mob-handed has most likely been created by analogy with the adverb/adjective single-handed which means 'done by one person without help from anyone else'. Single has been substituted for a noun which refers to a group of people. The threatening connotations derive from the choice of mob, which usually describes some kind of unruly gang. The word mob dates from the late 17th century and is an abbreviation based on the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, which literally means 'excitable crowd'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 11th June 2004.

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