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[hand-foo l] /ˈhænd fʊl/
noun, plural handfuls.
the quantity or amount that the hand can hold:
a handful of coins.
a small amount, number, or quantity:
a handful of men.
Informal. a person or thing that is as much as one can manage or control:
The baby's tantrums made him a handful.
Origin of handful
before 900; Middle English, Old English. See hand, -ful
Usage note
See -ful. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for handful
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl.

    De Profundis Oscar Wilde
  • Now, every man who was a handful or two short of his crop began to look at us doubtfully.

    The Trail Book Mary Austin
  • Yates caught up a handful of sand, and flung it lightly against the pane.

  • He stooped, thinking he had caught it, but took up only a handful of soapy foam.

    The Dream Emile Zola
  • Put them into the soup, add a handful of chopped parsley, and let them boil.

British Dictionary definitions for handful


noun (pl) -fuls
the amount or number that can be held in the hand
a small number or quantity
(informal) a person or thing difficult to manage or control
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for handful

Old English handful; see hand (n.) + -ful. Originally the quality that can be held in a hand; also a medieval linear measurement of four inches. Meaning "a small portion or part" is from c.1400. Figurative meaning "as much as one can manage" is from 1755.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Slang definitions & phrases for handful



  1. A five-year prison sentence or term (1930+ Underworld)
  2. A great deal to manage; burdensome task: That kid of yours is a handful (1887+)

Related Terms

grab a handful of air

The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.
Copyright (C) 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers.
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