sit on one’s hands: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘sit on one's hands’ mean?

The idiom "sit on one's hands" means to refrain from taking action or getting involved in a situation, often out of indecision or passivity.

Idiom Explorer


The idiom "sit on one's hands" describes someone who fails to take action or make a decision when necessary or expected. It implies an unwillingness or inability to act due to fear, indecisiveness, or a lack of initiative. This idiom has been in use since at least the early 1900s and is commonly used in both informal and formal contexts. It is primarily used in American English but is also understood in other English-speaking countries.

The origin of the idiom is not clear, but it likely derives from the physical act of sitting on one's hands. This action has long been associated with restraining oneself or preventing oneself from taking action. The idiom has been used in various contexts, including politics, business, and personal relationships.

Examples of the idiom in use include:

- "The CEO sat on his hands instead of making a decision, and the company suffered as a result."

- "The government's inaction on climate change has led to serious consequences."

- "She just sat on her hands and watched as the opportunity slipped away."

This idiom can also be used literally to describe someone who physically refrains from taking action by sitting on their hands.

The idiom "sit on one's ass" is a related idiom that carries a similar meaning of inaction or laziness. It is a more informal and slightly stronger variation of "sit on one's hands". When someone sits on their ass, they are not only failing to take action, but they are also being lazy or inactive. It emphasizes a lack of motivation or effort on the part of the individual.

For example:

Restraint led to inaction and delay.

- "He's been sitting on his ass all day instead of doing his chores."

- "Don't just sit on your ass, get up and do something productive."

The idiom "sit on" is another related expression that conveys a similar meaning of inaction or delay. It is often used in the context of a decision or information being withheld or not shared. When someone "sits on" something, they are keeping it to themselves and not taking any action with it.

For example:

- "He's been sitting on that important piece of information for weeks without telling anyone."

- "The boss is sitting on the decision and not giving us any updates."

Lastly, the idiom "sit on it" is a phrase that carries a different connotation. It originated as a slang expression in the 1950s and gained popularity through the TV show "Happy Days". In this context, "sit on it" is a dismissive and somewhat rude way of telling someone to keep quiet or stop bothering you. It is often used to brush off someone's comment or request.

For example:

- "I don't care what you think, sit on it!"

- "He told her to sit on it when she asked for a favor."

The idiom "sit on one's hands" is a powerful metaphor for inaction or indecisiveness. It conveys a sense of missed opportunities, potential consequences, and a lack of initiative. Whether used in personal or professional contexts, this idiom reminds us of the importance of taking action and making decisions when they are necessary.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom sit on one's hands can be used in a sentence:

  1. She had a lot of work to do, but she just sat on her hands instead of getting started.
  2. The coach was frustrated with his players for sitting on their hands during the game instead of actively participating.
  3. Despite all the problems in the company, the CEO chose to sit on his hands and avoid making any changes.

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