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There are several adjectives that are formed by attaching 「手」 to more common adjectives:

  • 手厳しい
  • 手堅い
  • 手早い
  • 手広い
  • 手短い

But most of the time this does not seem to change the meaning of the adjective very much.

  • 厳しい severe; strict; rigid
    手厳しい severe; harsh
  • 堅い hard; solid
    手堅い steady; firm
  • 早い fast; quick
    手早い nimble; quick; agile
  • 広い spacious; vast
    手広い spacious; roomy
  • 短い short
    手短い short; brief

Can these adjectives be used interchangeably? What does the 手 prefix mean, and how does it change the meaning of the adjective?

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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

To expand on sawa's answer a bit (and sawa/anyone else, do correct me if I am wrong about any of this; it is mostly based on observation, not hard research)...

This 手 originally conveyed a nuance of "handling," "doing," "dealing with", etc. and only later started to take on a more general meaning. So, speaking generally, the plain adjective might have many meanings, including gross physical ones, but the 手- version tends to refer to behavior or at least some implied "use case."

  • 堅い = hard, solid, rigid, tough, firm, stubborn (of objects and people, physical and metaphorical) vs 手堅い = sure, firm (of behavior/attitude)
  • ぬるい = lukewarm, tepid, sluggish (of things and people, physical and metaphorical) vs てぬるい = lenient, non-harsh (of behavior/attitude)
  • 狭い = narrow, restricted (of places/viewpoints/etc., physical and metaphorical) vs 手狭 = narrow (of places, when considered in the context of some [implied] behavior)
  • 短い = short (physical, metaphorical) vs 手短か = brief, concise (of a text, etc.)

Another example: in Nishiwaki Junzaburo's translation of Shakespeare's 18th sonnet, the "rough windes" that "shake the darling buds of Maie" are 手荒い: "手荒い風は五月の蕾をふるわし..." The winds are active, they have behavior. (There may be some anthropomorphizing going on here too.)

As a related observation to the above, note that there are no 手 words for adjectives conveying purely emotional states (e.g. no 手楽しい or 手悲しい) or characteristics that are observed rather than "received" as behavior (e.g. no 手美しい or 手明るい).

I don't claim that this is a hard-and-fast distinction, or even a completely reliable rule of thumb -- and as noted the prefix did slide towards a more general intensifying meaning -- but it might be helpful when considering how these adjectives differ from their unprefixed versions.

Some other observations:

  • 手- is not "productive" in Modern Japanese. That is, you can use 手- words that are already in the language, but you can't attach 手 to any adjective you like (not without thereby coining a new word, anyway).
  • 手- does not combine with Sino-Japanese words or other loanwords. There is no 手丁寧な or 手ハードな.
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This is a lot closer to my impression of the meaning of the 手 prefix. The more I looked at the 手-adjectives, the more they seemed to be specifically about behavior. This raises a couple questions, though: 1) I've seen both 厳しい and 手厳しい used to describe human behavior; how does one decide which to use? 2) 手広い and 手短い don't seem to describe behavior--are they just more intense versions of 広い and 短い, or can one exhibit 手広い or 手短い behavior? –  Amanda S Aug 16 '11 at 23:39
    
Yeah, I think that once you narrow the cases to the point where either seems permissible, you need either native intuition or a bunch of data to reach meaningful conclusions about which is right/best (and most likely those conclusions will add up to sawa's answer!). One thing I can address, though: 手短い and 手広い do differ from 短い and 広い, and in ways that certainly seem dependent on human behavior somehow. For example: 一日 or 紐 can only be 短い, not 手短い (or 手短か). 家 and 商売 can be 手広い, but 空, 海, 大自然 cannot. And so on... –  Matt Aug 17 '11 at 1:08
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It is an intensifier that attaches to a gradable adjective/adjectival noun.

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