What does the idiom "have sb's hands full" mean?

The phrase have sb's hands full is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of have sb's hands full.

Meaning of "have sb's hands full"


The phrase “have someone’s hands full” is an idiomatic expression used in English which essentially means to have a lot of work or activities to do. It implies being overwhelmed or overly busy with tasks.


This expression is said to have been in use since the early 1700s. The first recorded use was found in a letter written in 1714 by a British government official to Thomas Harley, who was a member of Parliament. In the letter, the official states, “I am sure you have your hands full with business…” The origin of the phrase is unclear, though it is thought to have derived from the literal meaning of having one’s hands full. This could refer to being physically busy doing something, or in the case of being busy with paperwork, one’s physical hands may become full of documents.


The phrase ‘have someone’s hands full’ is generally used in an informal context and is usually a comment or statement made when someone is seen as being extremely busy. It’s usually a sympathetic comment to express that one is aware of how much someone has to do.

Example Sentences

  • My boss has his hands full with this project and all the other things he's got going on.
  • We all have our hands full with work and family commitments.
  • I’m sure he’ll get everything done, he always has his hands full.

The meanings of the words in the "have sb's hands full" idiom

The Global Spread of English Idioms

As English has become a global language, its idioms have spread far beyond the borders of the UK and USA. For instance, the idiom "beat around the bush" has equivalents in many other languages, such as "tourner autour du pot" in French and "dar vueltas al asunto" in Spanish. Meanwhile, other idioms have been adapted for local contexts, such as the Russian idiom "?? ???? ???????" (ne svoya rubashka), which translates to "not one's own shirt," meaning to be in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation.


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