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Alternative forms[edit]


From Middle English handful, hondful, from Old English handful (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).


  • (file)
  • IPA(key): /ˈhæn(d)fʊl/, /ˈhæn(d)fəl/


handful (plural handfuls or handsful)

  1. The amount that a hand will grasp or contain.
    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. - Joseph Addison, The Spectator, Vol. VI
  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: [] VVilliam Rawley; [p]rinted by J[ohn] H[aviland] for William Lee [], OCLC 1044372886:
      Knap the tongs together about a handful from the bottom.
  3. A small number, usually approximately five.
    • 1655, Thomas Fuller, James Nichols, editor, The Church History of Britain, [], volume (please specify |volume=I to III), new edition, London: [] [James Nichols] for Thomas Tegg and Son, [], published 1837, OCLC 913056315:
      This handful of men were tied to very hard duty.
    • 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.
  4. A group or number of things; a bunch.
    • 1866, Emma Jane Worboise, Sir Julian's Wife, page 89:
      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. (colloquial) Something which can only be managed with difficulty.
    Those twins are a real handful to look after.
    • 2008, Dog Fancy (volume 39, issue 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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