By Dr Oliver Tearle
The adjectival compound phrase ‘second-hand’ is well-known to anyone familiar with buying or selling used items, such as books, toys, or household appliances. In this context, something that is second-hand has already been owned, and probably used, by someone and is now being given or sold to a new owner.
However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers a wider and more expansive definition: second-hand means ‘not original or obtained from the original source; plagiarized or borrowed; imitative, derivative.’ The phrase is of perhaps surprisingly old vintage: the OED cites a Richard Whitlock, writing in 1654, as the earliest known use of the term: ‘If a man cloath his discourse in a Language that is not second hand English, or but one degree above … Caterwauling, why he is affected.’
So, something described as ‘second-hand’ may not necessarily be an item for sale or even an object at all: it might be a quotation, a piece of wisdom, or a joke, among other things. Such a second-hand piece of knowledge or information may be freely given into another’s hand or may have been taken and used by someone else without the original owner’s position, hence ‘plagiarized or borrowed’.
Let’s take a look at some of the commonest and best synonyms for second-hand and explore how they might be used in writing.
Perhaps the best-known synonym for second-hand is USED, a word which indicates that a particular item has been owned and used by at least one person already. So a toy or book sold online on an auction website might be described as either used or second-hand: the two terms are interchangeable.
WORN carries a similar meaning, though tends to be used either of clothing (when employed in a literal sense) or, more figuratively, of phrases or quotations or jokes which are overly familiar. So clothes which have been worn become second-hand, and a phrase or witticism which is often repeated becomes ‘worn’ through frequent use.
If something is second-hand that means it is not new, so it might be called OLD. So one might say I’m going to take those old clothes down the jumble sale, where ‘old’ indicates that the clothes have already been worn by at least one person and will thus be second-hand when the next person buys them.
Similarly, the phrase NEARLY NEW signals that something is not brand-new, but is newer than ‘old’ might imply. So you might advertise a coat one bought only last year, which you wish to get rid of because it wasn’t right for you, as one coat for sale, nearly new. This obviously emphasises the good condition of the coat in a way that one old coat for sale wouldn’t.
Clothes in particular have attracted a few other useful phrases which can be deployed as synonyms for second-hand. Indeed, the same idea of handing somebody something either as a gift exists in the phrases HAND-ME-DOWN and HANDED DOWN.
However, these two synonymous phrases tend to be used of the family practice of a parent handing down clothes to their children, or of an older sibling handing down an item of clothing to a younger brother or sister. So the youngest son in a family might complain that all I got to wear growing up were hand-me-downs from my older brother.
REACH-ME-DOWN has much the same meaning, as does CAST-OFF, which indicates that the second-hand object is being handed down to another because its original owner no longer wants it: it’s been ‘cast off’ by them. So that disgruntled younger brother might also express displeasure at only ever having my older brother’s cast-offs, for instance.
Much of these second-hand synonyms focus on objects (clothes or others) which are handed down, or handed on, from one person to another.
But it’s worth bearing in mind the OED definition of second-hand we referenced at the outset: the term can also be applied to ideas or words which have their origins somewhere else. In this connection, the adjectives SECONDARY, DERIVED, and DERIVATIVE can all function as synonyms for second-hand when it’s used in this sense.
Finally, the word VICARIOUS refers to deriving something, such as pleasure, at second hand: for instance, somebody who has given up smoking might refer to the vicarious pleasure received from breathing in their friend’s second-hand smoke, or someone might reference deriving a certain vicarious pleasure from reading a romance novel and putting herself in the position of the heroine.