What Does "Avoir Un Poil Dans La Main" Mean in French?

Man in sneakers wrapped in blanket on the couch

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Avoir un poil dans la main is a rather common French expression. It means "to be extremely lazy," though the literal translation requires a bit of explanation.

The Meaning of Avoir un poil dans la main

Avoir un poil dans la main is pronounced ah vwah roo(n) pwahl da(n) lah meh(n). It literally means "to have a hair in the hand," which doesn't make a lot of sense at first. However, the expression is used to convey that someone is "extremely lazy," "bone-idle," or, quite simply, "a lazybones."

When using the expression, do remember that you need to conjugate avoir (to have) to match the subject pronoun and tense of the sentence.

The phrase falls into French's informal register, meaning it is often reserved for casual conversations with people you're most familiar with.

Making Sense of an Odd Expression

Though it's unclear as to where the expression originated, it's often attributed to the late 1800s, if not earlier. The reason this expression refers to laziness likely has something to do with manual labor, which was standard at the time. It also requires an exercise in visualization to get the full picture. 

Avoir un poil dans la main and its accompanying gesture offer a very precise image of a hand that is so idle there's actually a hair growing out of it. This is assumed to be because a hand that does not work is not subject to the friction that inhibits hair growth on the palm. The biological facts of how rare hair growth is in the palm calls this into question. And yet, we must also remember that this is something French peasants centuries ago may not have understood.

It's also possible that the phrase could be saying that the person is so lazy that he can't be bothered to pluck—or even notice—a hair growing in such a ridiculous place. Other people speculate that a hair is a very personal object which is not to be lost. Therefore, if someone holds something so dear, they cannot possibly open that hand to do any manual labor.

Using the Expression in Context

How would you use such an odd expression in conversation? It's actually quite easy and can simply be added to express the extent of the laziness you're trying to explain.

  • Depuis le déménagement, il ne fait rien. Il a un poil dans la main. - Since the move, he hasn't done anything. He's a real lazybones.

To express even greater laziness, you can take it a step further by increasing the size of the hair. Both of these are common variations on the expression.

  •  Il une queue de vache dans la main. - He has a cow's tail in his hand.
  • Ce n'est plus un poil (qu'il a dans la main), c'est une canne ! or un bambou ! - It's no longer a hair (that he has in his hand), it's a cane! or a bamboo stick!