What Does Many Hands Make Light Work Mean?

Have you ever faced a daunting task and had friends and loved ones encourage and comfort you by saying, “Many hands make light work”? Did you know what they meant? Let’s uncover the definition, as well as origin, of this popular idiomatic and proverbial phrase. Together, we’ll make light work of it!

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What Does Many Hands Make Light Work Mean?

This expression is used to say that when many people help with a project, the undertaking gets accomplished much faster and easier than it would with less people involved. In other words, it encourages people to come together and work together to complete a task.

In this phrase, the word hands has a literal and figurative meaning: It refers to both the number of actual hands working on a project and the number of people involved. In fact, it’s an example of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole; hands are only one part of a person, but here they are used to represent an entire being. (The word hands is also used in this way in the popular expression all hands on deck.) In many hands make light work, the word light doesn’t refer to a source of illumination that brightens up a dark room, but rather it means “easy” or “effortless.”

Here are some example sentences using the saying many hands make light work:

  • My New Year’s party was so much fun, but the guests made quite a mess. I felt so overwhelmed by the hard work of cleaning it up all alone. Luckily, a few friends stayed to help me, and we got the place sparkling in no time. It’s true that many hands make light work!
  • Many hands make light work, Mom. Let all us kids help you fix Thanksgiving dinner so that you can have more time to just relax and enjoy the day. 
  • I decided to hire the building company with a larger crew, since many hands make light work and we need the new addition on the house completed as soon as possible.
  • Packing up an apartment can be such a time-consuming task. But I offered free pizza in exchange for help, and thankfully lots of people chipped in. We got my whole place in boxes in just a few hours. Many hands make light work!

The Origin of the Expression

It’s possible the phrase is an ancient proverb, known to the ancient Greeks and Romans alike. But the phrase appears to have first been recorded in English (Middle English, to be more specific) in the 1300s. It’s said to have been used in a romance story from that time called Sir Bevis of Hampton. Yet, John Heywood is often credited with the expression. While he did not coin the phrase himself, he did include it in his well-known 1546 collection of proverbs: A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Many hands make light work is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t be understood, or at least fully understood, just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As discussed earlier, in the expression many hands make light work, hands refers both to the appendages and to people, which is difficult to discern just by taking the phrase at face value. What’s more, if you were to try and take the phrase literally, you could be confused by the word light, which as an adjective here doesn’t mean “bright” or “not heavy,” but rather “easy” or “requiring little effort.” The phrase is used figuratively to say that the more people involved in a project, the easier that project may be to complete.

This well-known expression is also thought of as a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

Though it is considered a universal fact that more hands/people can make a task easier, it’s also known that sometimes the opposite is true. Depending on the situation, it can actually be less helpful to have a bunch of people involved in a task, hence the proverb too many cooks in the kitchen, or the variant too many cooks spoil the broth. These antonyms to many hands make light work mean that when too many people are involved in a project, it can be less successful than it would be with fewer people taking part, because too many opinions and influences can complicate matters.

Learn the meanings of many more idioms and proverbs here.

Summary

The proverbial and idiomatic expression many hands make light work means that the more people working to accomplish a task, the quicker and easier it will be completed. It is often used to encourage people to come together and share in required work. It is said to date to the 1300s, and has appeared in print in English as a proverb since 1546.