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Alternative forms[edit]


From Middle English handful, hondful, from Old English handfull (handful), from Proto-Germanic *handufullō, *handufulliz (handful), from Proto-Germanic *handuz (hand) + *fullaz (full); equivalent to hand +‎ full (fullness, plenty) or hand +‎ -ful. Cognate with Saterland Frisian Hondful (handful), West Frisian hânfol (handful), Dutch handvol (handful), German Handvoll (handful), Danish håndfuld (handful), Swedish handfull (handful), Icelandic handfylli (handful).



handful (plural handfuls or handsful)

  1. The amount that a hand will grasp or contain.
    • 1712 July 26 (Gregorian calendar), [Richard Steele], “TUESDAY, July 15, 1712”, in The Spectator, number 431; republished in Alexander Chalmers, editor, The Spectator; a New Edition, [], volume V, New York, N.Y.: D[aniel] Appleton & Company, 1853, →OCLC, page 130:
      I put two or three corns in my mouth, liked it, stole a handful, went into my chamber, chewed it, and for two months after never failed taking toll of every pennyworth of oatmeal that came into the house: []
  2. (obsolete) A hand's breadth; four inches.
    • 1631, Francis [Bacon], “(please specify |century=I to X)”, in Sylua Syluarum: Or A Naturall Historie. In Ten Centuries. [], 3rd edition, London: [] William Rawley; [p]rinted by J[ohn] H[aviland] for William Lee [], →OCLC:
      Knap the tongs together about a handful from the bottom.
  3. A small number, usually approximately five.
    • 1655, Thomas Fuller, edited by James Nichols, The Church History of Britain, [], new edition, volumes (please specify |volume=I to III), London: [] [James Nichols] for Thomas Tegg and Son, [], published 1837, →OCLC:
      This handful of men were tied to very hard duty.
      The spelling has been modernized.
    • 1985, Rodger Bradley, Amtrak: The US National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Blandford Press, page 92:
      The names of a number of the most famous North American railroads could be found in the north-east; Pennsylvania, New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, and the Norfolk & Western, to name but a handful.
    • 2023 March 8, Howard Johnston, “Was Marples the real railway wrecker?”, in RAIL, number 978, pages 52–53:
      Was it deliberate that the first week of October 1961 was chosen to conduct a national survey of passenger usage? Why October of all months, when the holiday season was over and families back at work and at school? Was this a fiddling of the figures to make an unfair case against rail-dependent resorts such as those in the West Country, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, where previously overloaded summer services would now only have a handful of locals on board?
  4. A group or number of things; a bunch.
    • 1866, Emma Jane Worboise, “Ivy Cottage”, in Sir Julian’s Wife, London: Virtue Brothers and Co., [], →OCLC, pages 89–90:
      But, aunt, she must have had some kind of education, her accent was so pure, her English so unfaulty. The other girl dropped her h's by handfuls, and made some very wild confusion in her native etymology.
  5. (informal) Something which can only be managed with difficulty.
    Those twins are a real handful to look after.
    • 1959 February, G. Freeman Allen, “Southampton—Gateway to the Ocean”, in Trains Illustrated, page 91:
      The Southern acquired them because the little Class "B4" 0-4-0 tanks were finding heavy modern rolling stock more and more of a handful, and at war's end the railway had nothing of suitable power but short wheelbase on its books to take their place on the more tortuous of the dock lines.
    • 2008, Dog Fancy, volume 39, number 11, page 76:
      Many times dogs are surrendered for reasons such as changes in the family unit, a death in the family, no time to care for a dog, or because that cute little puppy is now a 100 lb untrained handful.
  6. (slang) A five-year prison sentence.


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