Kid Gloves

Handle something with kid gloves – to treat a situation with particular tact, care, or sensitivity. This is one of those common expressions whose origins I’d never thought about, until one day I realised where it comes from. Or I read an explanation, and couldn’t believe I’d never figured it out before.

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I like to think it was the former. Anyway, what might be surprising is that the expression has nothing to do with children. Well, not human children anyway. The kid the expression refers to is a young goat, and kid gloves are gloves made from kid-goat leather, which is particularly soft. This is why kid gloves are particurlaly appropriate for handling things delicately, without marking them. This is why, for example, the stereotypical white gloves of household servants were made of kid leather. The gloves became a symbol of wealth and refinement, and was often used in literature as a shorthand to indicate a character is extremely or foppish (I suspect this is where it became clear the name referred to the material of the gloves).

The expression to handle something with kid gloves became common in the 19th century. What’s not so clear is when people started assuming kid referred to human children, and treating someone with kid gloves meant treating them like they were children. I don’t know if I ever consciously thought that that’s what the expression meant, but a quick search for “kiddie gloves” online will show you that that variant of the expression is quite common, and shows what people think the expression means.

All of this is not to say that I’m amazed people have been mistaken about the origin of the expression. It’s quite understandable, in fact. Treating something with kid gloves – carefully, delicately – is basically how we would treat a child (well, hopefully). And kid-leather gloves aren’t really the height of fashion anymore, so why would one assume they’re what the expression refers to?

Most importantly, misunderstanding the origin of the expression doesn’t mean people misuse it. In fact, the misunderstanding comes from knowing what the expression means. So if you didn’t know what kid gloves are, don’t worry: you’re far from alone.

One thought on “Kid Gloves

  1. I knew “handle with kid gloves” meant gently. I’ve never heard the second take on it, teat them like children. But I’m not up on the latest slang. And these days the expression would likely be called “an outdated cliche.”


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