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.)

  • Interesting that the U.S. version of this idiom focuses on one’s ability to control others: “I’ll have them eating out of my hand.”

  • Élena

    Interesting…we have the same saying in Germany, but it doesn’t have a negative connotation at all. Saying “He’s eating out of my hand” actually equals “He’d do everything for me” :)

  • Love these French idiom lessons! Keep ’em coming!

  • Elena – that may not have negative connotations for you, but I am willing to bet that your man may feel differently!

    The squirrel is always in control in my experience.

  • Liselotte

    And in Dutch it is also the same ;) So lovely, all languages. I like your blog very much, you are such an inspiration! I began my own last month. Thanks!

  • The exact same expression exist in Portuguese, with the same negative connotation. It is also used as threat: “I’ll make him eat from my hand!”

  • dory

    I loooooove the picture for this one. It is too cute. It reminds me of where I used to study, where the custodial staff had squirrels trained to eat out of their hands.


  • Still loving the Edible Idioms. I learned a new one today, in fact – “avoir la pêche”. I was very confused when someone at work said I had the peach (or the fishing?) but the explanation soon followed. I thought of you immediately.

  • This expression exists also in the Finnish language. Ths connotation is the same as in German.

  • I love these idioms, and thanks so much for adding the audio component, it’s very helpful!

  • Fascinating stuff. I have a food terms glossary on my site (the one I developed at school), but I’m missing out on colorful expressions such as this.

    Fun to read!


  • Barry

    Yes, we generally use the expression in English to indicate our control of others—”I had them eating out of my hand”—as Nancy indicates, but the sense of it is still the same: that one individual has an elevated status relative to another. Does it say something about the French that their version indicates a little more humility?

  • Aiyana

    It is so nifty how this same expression exists in many languages but with slightly different connotations! I wonder why that is? Did it start in one language and get translated to others, did it arise on its own in many places, or does it date back to Latin and changed as the child languages did?

  • Congratulations on your Bloggies win. Thoroughly well deserved.

    Alistair (Fellow finalist)

  • Melanie

    Congratulations on your Bloggie!

  • That is interesting – in Germany we use it on a complete different way. For someone who is doing all out of love and respect, not out of submission or surrender with this negative touch to it.

  • kaara

    Hi–I think the American equivalent (though Nancy’s first post also rings true) for your example about “eating out of the in-laws’ hand” is closer to “[…] but he knows what side his bread is buttered on”, another food idiom!
    cheers, KP

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