Where does the phrase "on the gripping hand" come from and what does it mean in the context of that work, The Gripping Hand?

I'll add that I just finished reading The Mote in God's Eye and this is not the origin of the phrase, as I had suspected.

3 Answers 3


The way I understand the history, the concept of a “gripping hand” did originate in The Mote in God's Eye (published in 1974). This novel features aliens who have three hands, one of them significantly stronger than the other two and most useful for gripping.

But the expression “on the gripping hand” came later, coined by people who'd read the book. The earliest reference on Google Books is a Byte magazine article from 1986. Note that the writer feels the need to attribute the quote indirectly.

On the gripping hand, as the Moties say, (…)

Google Books also finds a few other occurrences, but they may just be quotes from The Mote in God's Eye that happen to mention the phrase, I am unable to find another confirmed citation.

It's only later, in The Gripping Hand (1993), that the expression becomes a plot point.

So it seems that “on the gripping hand”, originally an allusion to the Mote in God's Eye, had become an idiomatic expression to a few English speakers (presumably SF fans); Niven then had the idea (or coincidentally happened) to give more prominence to the gripping hand in his 1993 sequel, and the expression grew in popularity after that.

  • 3
    Nice job finding that reference! Commented Jan 12, 2011 at 23:55
  • 19
    Probably worth noting that the author of that Byte article was Jerry Pournelle, co-author of The Mote in God's Eye (and The Gripping Hand) - Jerry's "Chaos Manor" column was a fixture in Byte for many, many years, and he often made references to his work with Niven.
    – Shog9
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 20:16
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    In support to @Shog9's comment, the snippet in Google Books doesn't include enough context to identify the authorship, unless you are familiar with his column. The fragments definitely looks like something Pournelle would have written for Chaos Manor, and the author mentions "Zeke II", one of several "named PCs" that Pournelle owned and frequently discussed in his column. Commented Jan 8, 2016 at 16:28
  • In Mote itself there is a discussion at one point between a Motie and Human where the Motie mentions human's use of the phrase "The other hand" and he then waves both "other hands" and questions - which is this for us? It isn't far from that to answer it as the gripping hand rather than the weak hand on that side.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 21:24
  • @EuroMicelli Never mind Google Books, see the entry for gripping hand at the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction.
    – user14111
    Commented Apr 19 at 10:51

This comes from "The Gripping Hand", the sequel to "The Mote in God's Eye". In the story, the humans have contact with aliens known as Moties. The Moties have three arms: two dexterous right arms and a strong muscular left arm. The left hand is the literal "gripping hand".

The expression "on the gripping hand" is used to enumerate the last of three possible choices, following the structure "on one hand X, on the other hand Y, on the gripping hand Z".

In the book the humans provide three choices to the Moties: on one hand extermination; on the other hand forceful confinement to their home system; and on the gripping hand a genetic modification that slows down their explosive reproduction rate and allows them to share the galaxy with humans

  • Not just the third option but the best, even if the best of a set of bad choices.
    – thnidu
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 18:37
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    Not the best, necessarily, but the option you have to take because of some outside force or requirement. Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 19:43

A crucial plot element of the book is the idiom "on the gripping hand", a three-armed variation of the idiom "On one hand X, on the other hand Y." The saying is native to the alien Moties, who have three arms, one of which is stronger but possesses less finesse. link text

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