Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. The amount that a hand can hold.
  • n. A small, undefined number or quantity: only a handful of people on the street.
  • n. Informal One that is difficult to control or handle: The hyperactive toddler is a real handful.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. As much as the hand will grasp or contain. - Joseph Addison
  • n. A hand's breadth; four inches.
  • n. A small quantity, usually approximately equal to five, the number of fingers on a hand.
  • n. Something which can only be managed with difficulty.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. As much as the hand will grasp or contain.
  • n. A hand's breadth; four inches.
  • n. A small quantity or number.
  • n. A person, task, or situation, which is the most that one can manage.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. As much as the hand can grasp or contain.
  • n. A unit of length equal to four inches; a hand.
  • n. A small quantity or number; a little.
  • n. As much as one can hold or manage; full employment.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. the quantity that can be held in the hand
  • n. a small number or amount

Etymologies

From Middle English, from Old English handful ("handful"), from Proto-Germanic *handfullan, *handfullō, *handfulljô (“handful”), from Proto-Germanic *handuz (“hand”), *fullaz (“full”), equivalent to hand +‎ full (“fullness, plenty”). Cognate with West Frisian hânfol ("handful"), Dutch handvol ("handful"), Danish håndfuld ("handful"), Swedish handfull ("handfull"), Icelandic handfylli ("handful"). (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • In the early 90s he dated the housemate of my then-boyfriend and it was quite bizarre when he told me, when refering to bosoms, that "more than a handful is a waste".

    Dutch Courage?

  • While professing unhappiness with what he called a handful of "mistakes," he held fast to his basic support of Bush's policies.

    Suzanne Nossel: Letting Go of Joe

  • "There is no word more shameful in the Israeli lexicon of violence than the word 'handful,' " wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

    NYT > Home Page

  • That's why the IP address management vendor is looking to dispel what it calls a handful of myths around DNS and get people paying attention to the technology in 2009, despite economic worries.

    ARN News

  • Weatherspoon's big plays were among the handful from a defense that has 10 starters back and was expected to be much improved.

    USATODAY.com

  • Furthermore, that thin handful of shared beliefs that held the roof up -- imperialism, racism, antipathy to democracy, militarism, and authoritarianism -- was absolutely unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans; so you couldn't put any of that rigging out there where the voters might chance to see it.

    Archive 2008-01-01

  • Aiming to minimize his risk, he called a handful of funds to find how many bonds in their portfolios were considered "distressed," with yields 10 percentage points above Treasurys.

    High-Yield Bonds Are Popular

  • President Obama says he called a handful of troops this morning wishing them a merry Christmas.

    CNN Transcript Dec 24, 2009

  • "I often give them to people," said Anice, taking a handful from the basket and offering them to her across the holly.

    That Lass o' Lowrie's: A Lancashire Story

  • Mission mech franchise ready to roll out, having delayed the title a handful of times.

    GameSpot's News, Screenshots, Movies, Reviews, Previews, Downloads, and Features

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Comments

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  • The quantity implied by a handful depends on the context, but it assumes a hand-size proportionate to the object in question. Cars and planets can be held in an imaginary hand, if not an actual or theoretical one. I feel the measure loses some of its relevance when used with non-physical items, as I imagine ideas, prayers &c slipping through the clenched fingers of the hand.

    On the scale of a single person, I would say a handful is between four and a dozen. A handful of marbles is not necessarily more than a handful of books. On larger scales - a global or universal scale - a handful may be more, while still representing a similar proportion. For example we might speak of the galaxy containing a handful of earth-like planets, even if the actual number were 100.

    April 2, 2009

  • You've got your hands full with this one, Lampbane.

    April 2, 2009

  • How much is a handful, anyway? Does it depend on the item in question? A handful of marbles is a larger quantity than a handful of books. Some items cannot be held in the hand at all - a car, a house, a planet - so does the word even exist for them? And what about non-physical items, like downloads or ideas? Maybe then a set number, like five?

    April 2, 2009