English Idioms

to sit on one's hands

McCain said six times in one speech at a caucus rally "I am a Republican", while his audience often sat on their hands. (picked up in Newsweek of Feb 18, p.19)

I wonder why the audience had to sit on their hands. Were they at a loss for seats?
Who would stand up for that idiom?
I'll keep sitting by until I get an explanation.


  • I hope you haven't been waiting for three days...

    I have been sitting on my hands for more than three days!

    To sit on one's hands means to fail to act/ not to act.

    As there was little response from the public, I suppose that's the reason why McCain repeated his sentence six times, which is strange because when you go to a caucus, either you agree or you disagree with the speaker but you respond.

    Maybe someone else will give you another explanation but in the meantime, I have decided to try to help you!
  • Thanks to you, Silky, I hadn’t to wait so much for being further acquainted.

    Your double definition of the idiom matches that of my American Dictionary. I hadn’t first noticed that it mentioned the idiom. The double definition is displayed in reverse order.
    To sit on one’s hands: 1. to withhold applause 2. to fail to take action.

    I suppose that the origin of the idiom stands in its first meaning. I imagine people sitting in an audience who put their hands beneath their thighs instead of giving a hand. The second meaning is easily understandable as human are bipeds and mainly use their hands to take action, the hand turning a metonymic symbol of action.

    As McCain for the time being draws closer to the GOP nomination, many conservative pundits are still counterattacking him. Facing Huckabee, McCain is far less considered as a true conservative than his rival. A Republican radio host said he was more dangerous even than Hillary Clinton. Some opponents remind that he often stabbed his own party in the back. The fact is that McCain reaches out beyond the Republican party borders. He has a good sense of America’s shifting political mood. A mood similar to Sarkozy’s or Bayrou’s in France who try to rake outside their own party. In Western democracies most people are not wedded any more to one party or even one ideology. It is not a surprise that McCain had to confront though crowds in caucus that weren’t enthralled by his speech, and therefore were sitting on their hands. Such a mood is not imaginable at an Obama’s speech where people are for or against, “agree or disagree” as you said. And they respond as Obama exalts hope for change.

    Have you ever attended a caucus meeting, Silky? Where are you from? You seem to have a perfect command of English. On my part, I was born in England from an English mother but have been living on the continent, used to speaking French as mother tongue. I am now brushing up my English with a daily GymGlish tip. I’d be pleased that you correct my mistakes.
    See you,
    (C.W.) Sandy

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