Manger dans la main de quelqu’un

Photography by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Browse the list of idioms featured so far.

This week’s idiom is, “Manger dans la main de quelqu’un.”

Literally translated as, “eating out of someone’s hand,” it means submitting to someone, yielding to someone’s opinion or authority, acting in a docile or obsequious way with someone, in the hopes of gaining something in return. Although it is not as bad as grovelling, it is still used with a negative connotation, implying that the subject is losing some dignity in doing so.

Example: “Il ne supporte pas ses beaux-parents, mais comme ils ont des relations, il leur mange dans la main.” “He can’t stand his in-laws, but since they’re well connected, he eats out of their hand.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

(If no player appears, here’s a link to the audio file.)

Note that even when there are more than one person to submit to, la main (the hand) remains singular: “Il mange dans la main de ses beaux-parents,” not dans les mains.

This idiom draws on the image of a wild animal that would become so tame as to rely on humans to feed it, coming close enough to eat right out of someone’s hand (and thus running the risk of being captured).

I was interested to learn that when it first appeared, in the late eighteenth century, and until the twentieth, the expression meant behaving in an overly informal or chummy way in a situation where one should act with more decorum. (See page 54 of the 1798 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française and page 159 of the 1835 edition.)

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