from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun The amount that a hand can hold.
  • noun A small, undefined number or quantity.
  • noun Informal One that is difficult to control or handle.

from The Century Dictionary.

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

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • noun As much as the hand will grasp or contain.
  • noun obsolete A hand's breadth; four inches.
  • noun A small quantity or number.
  • noun A person, task, or situation, which is the most that one can manage.
  • noun [Obs.] to have one's hands full; to have all one can do.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

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

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

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


from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

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").


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  • 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

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

    April 2, 2009

  • 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