‘handbags at ten paces’: meaning and origin

Originally and chiefly used in reference to soccer players, the British- and Irish-English phrase handbags at ten paces, or handbags at dawn, and variants, denote a confrontation that does not lead to serious fighting. This phrase has come to be also used in the shortened form handbags (and, attributively, as the singular handbag).

This phrase is based on the cliché pistols at ten paces, or pistols at dawn, referring to a forthcoming duel: the substitution of the noun pistols with the noun handbags, which evokes women fighting with their handbags, expresses the histrionic character of the confrontation denoted by the phrase handbags at ten paces, or handbags at dawn, and variants.

Incidentally, the noun handbags has been used of hesitative play. The following is from Black Country gossip, by Mike Beddow, published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, West Midlands, England) of Saturday 4th September 1971—Bill McGarry (1927-2005) was then the manager of the Wolves, i.e., of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club:

It was interesting, against Manchester United last week, how Wolves followed Albion in a timid approach to George Best’s skills—but only for the first half.
Bill McGarry’s instructions to quicken the pace and resume tackling swept United off the park in the second session as McGarry gave his answer to what he calls “kid-glove soccer” under the new refereeing toughness.
Wolves will find themselves meeting two supporters of tighter refereeing when they tackle Manchester City in the League Cup at Maine Road, where Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison are in favour of more freedom for forwards.
City will be hard opposition, but Wolves may get a replay if McGarry continues to direct the players away from “football played with handbags”—another scornful phrase recently used by the Molineux manager.

—Cf. also the British-English phrase big girl’s blouse, denoting a man regarded as weak, cowardly or oversensitive.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase handbags at ten paces that I have found is from Woe for Willie… Why I’m disgusted over way he’s been treated, by ‘Ossie’, published in the Sports Argus (Birmingham, West Midlands, England) of Saturday 10th June 1978—this text is about the Scottish footballer William Johnston (born 1946), who had a “fearsome reputation”:

I have never seen Willie physically hurt any person with intent.
I saw him hurt a referee’s pride far more than the tender part of his anatomy that he took a playful kick at—and get a lengthy suspension for.
I’ve seen him adopt a “handbags at ten paces” attitude against a fullback who had just hacked him down, and because of his reputation get booked by a referee whose only knowledge of Willie’s temperament has been gleaned in his once-yearly 90 minute match.

One of the variants of the phrase, handbags at five paces, occurs in the following from Punchy Blues can keep smiling, by Ken Rogers, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Merseyside, England) of Monday 23rd March 1987:
—Context: During a game between Everton Football Club and Charlton Athletic Football Club, two players were sent off after a brawl; Howard Kendall (1946-2015) was then the manager of Everton Football Club:

Howard Kendall […] produced one of the quotes of the season, saying: “It’s usually handbags at five paces in these situations with the other players stepping in to sort things out. But it never happened in this instance and they both had to go.”

The earliest occurrence of the phrase handbags at dawn that I have found is from an opinion piece by Clive Soley (born 1939), Labour M.P. for Hammersmith, published in The Gazette (Hammersmith and Fulham edition – London, England) of Friday 12th May 1989:
—Interestingly, Clive Soley associated the phrase with the verbal noun handbagging, first recorded in 1987 in reference to Margaret Thatcher 1, and denoting forthright verbal criticism or coercive treatment, especially on the part of a woman:

As I write this Margaret Thatcher is in West Germany to try to persuade Chancellor Kohl 2 not to abandon short-range nuclear missiles or, as I heard one Tory MP say, to give him a “good handbagging”.
[…]
The Germans have a powerful argument. All the short range nuclear weapons have one unique characteristic—all will fall on Germany.
That ought to make us a little circumspect about lecturing them on the benefits of such weapons, and it is why the Germans will insist on talks taking place about these weapons. […] Both Britain and the USA have been lucky enough to fight our wars on other people’s soil and neither of us has suffered defeat and occupation as other European powers have. So I hope that Chancellor Kohl might do a bit of handbagging himself.
He is winning the support of many other European leaders so I don’t think he will be quite the pushover that some of Mrs Thatcher’s hero-worshippers think. It’s handbags at dawn—and this time peace lovers everywhere will hope the Germans win.

1 The British Conservative stateswoman Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.
2 The German statesman Helmut Kohl (1930-2017) was the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1982 to 1990, and of Germany from 1990 to 1998.

The phrase handbags at dawn then occurs in the following from the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England) of Wednesday 10th October 1990:

HANDBAGS AT DAWN
. . that’s Vinny compared to the old days

Vinny Jones, soccer’s skinhead with the shaken clenched fist and tattoos, has made a very nice living out of being an alleged hard man.
Brought up in that school of intimidation, Wimbledon, he’s taken his sneers to Leeds United and now Sheffield United while filling his bank balance.
And on Saturday he was involved in yet more incidents—the sending off of Wimbledon’s John Gayle and the fracas between the two of ’em in a corridor after the match.

These are two early occurrences of the phrase handbags at ten paces which do not refer to soccer; they are from Movies, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England):

1-: Of Friday 18th January 1991:

JOHNNY GUITAR (BBC-1, 1.50 pm – 3.40 pm) Handbags at ten paces for saloon owner Joan Crawford and homesteader Mercedes McCambridge in woefully solemn Western melodrama. Sterling Hayden hangs his head in the background. Ward Bond, Paul Fix. 1953

2-: Of Saturday 30th March 1991:

THE TURNING POINT (BBC-2, 11.10 pm -1.10 am) Handbags at ten paces for Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, former friends at odds in the bitchy world of ballet. 1977

The noun handbag is used attributively in the following from A rich vein of jargon, James Hanning’s guide to soccer terminology, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Thursday 26th May 1994:

A handbag situation: when players square up and scuffle (supermarket-style) but the ball is too far away for them to kick each other.

The shortening to handbags occurs, for example, in the following from the column On the other hand…, published in The Sunday Tribune (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Sunday 29th June 1997:

God be with the days when songwriters were inspired by stuff such as a pair of brown eyes, the silvery moon, a blue moon, a harvest moon. But O no—none of that big girl’s blouse lark for Aussie machoman Michael Hutchence. For he has admitted that a track on the new INXS album, Elegantly Wasted, was inspired by a fight he had with Oasis singer Liam Gallagher in Dublin. The spot of handbags broke out in the VIP lounge of the Chocolate Bar when Michael decided it was a timely moment to rib Liam about the time that his fiancée (now wife) Patsy Kensit was caught on camera putting her hand down Hutchence’s trousers at an MTV Awards concert in Paris. (She was probably just looking for her fags). Michael and Liam had to be physically separated by the club’s security staff and Bono, who briefly reactivated his crusade as a man of peace. The song is called ‘Shine’, though ‘Shiner’ would probably be nearer the truth.