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I have recently come accross this phrase in a movie called The Cube. Here is the excerpt:

I leaned on my shovel for months on this one. This was a great job!

I couldn't find any dictionary references that would explain this phrase.

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  • Ever see a road repair crew with one too many workers?
    – Jim Mack
    Mar 10, 2021 at 21:14
  • @JimMack So: "not having to do anything / enjoy leisurely"? Mar 10, 2021 at 21:20
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    It has several different meanings, depending on context.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 10, 2021 at 21:43
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    Making the job last as long as possible.
    – Xanne
    Mar 11, 2021 at 0:10

2 Answers 2

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It usually means to do nothing.

It's often used in an expression such as:

"You can't lean on a shovel and pray for a hole."

Meaning that you can't do nothing and expect something to get done.

As for an authoritative source, here's the best I can do. I welcome others to add to this:

The phrase is linked to another phrase, "shovel-ready," used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to describe the kinds of jobs that the Works Progress Administration would bring to unemployed people as part of the New Deal. He is quoted defending the program, denying that it was created to pay people "to lean on a shovel."

From The Inspiring Story of the True Origin of the Term Shovel-Ready

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  • That's a new one on me. I'll have to remember it.
    – BoldBen
    Apr 10, 2021 at 7:24
  • Sounds convincing, but can you provide an authoritative reference? Apr 10, 2021 at 11:40
  • I added it to the text of the answer. Apr 11, 2021 at 14:49
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The phrase refers to scenes that are much less common now than formerly. In developed countries, many construction, labouring or maintenance jobs now done by machines were done up to the middle of the last century largely by hand.

A road gang might dig with picks and shovels to excavate a hole, to refill it, to shovel asphalt into position, to rake material flat, to pass a roller over to smooth the surface. During such work there were periods when those who had been shovelling material would stand aside to allow others to pick, to rake, to roll.

In these circumstances those leaning on their shovels were merely waiting their turn to resume their part in the work. To casual or thoughtless onlookers it appeared as if they were lazy and unproductive.

It is still possible to see such scenes today, where machines are being used and manual labour complements them. Labourers lean on their shovels while a machine plays its part in the process.

The phrase therefore is sometimes used to imply a break in a task and sometimes an unwillingness to work.

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  • +1 for the etymology of the word. However, the answer I would be willing to accept is the combination of the comments made by HotLicks and Xanne: the word has several different meanings, depending context; in my particular case, it means "making the job last as long as possible". Apr 10, 2021 at 13:59
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    Thank you. I looked for pictures of what I described but have only found copyrighted ones. In all cases, the pictures showed gangs of road workers doing what I described. Those leaning on their shovels could not work safely while other operations were going on, even had they wanted to. But of course such periods of rest are welcome so are enjoyed and perhaps might be prolonged by lazy workers, hence the drift of usage towards your desired meaning.
    – Anton
    Apr 10, 2021 at 14:03

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