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What is the meaning of the phrase "from hunger", as in, "This xyz is from hunger"? From the context I found it in, it appears to mean either very good, or very bad, but it's hard to tell which.

The context in which I read this expression…

"I'm going into the city. On the way back I'll get you the biggest jar of Samoy I can find."
Mal rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Samoy pickles are from hunger."

—Michael Marshall Smith, Spares.

The phrase occurred later in a discussion of firearms but I can't find it just this minute (dead tree books — difficult to do a full text search).

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8 Answers 8

up vote 12 down vote accepted

TheFreeDictionary says:

(strictly) from hunger
Sl. very mediocre; acceptable only when nothing else is available. This kind of entertainment is from hunger. The singer was strictly from hunger.

See also this discussion over at ThePhraseFinder.

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Without proper citation and provenience, these sources lack authority. Folk etymology is often dreadfully misleading or incorrect (e.g. straightdope.com/columns/read/2053/…) –  msw Sep 2 '10 at 5:36
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@msw: I don't see any etymology, folk or otherwise, in either of the links that RegDwight offered, only definitions of the term and examples of usage. It looks like RegDwight has the right answer, although since the question did not have any context it is hard for me to know. –  delete Sep 2 '10 at 5:48
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Anyone else amused by "very mediocre"? As opposed to just a little bit mediocre, perhaps. –  moioci Sep 4 '10 at 0:26

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hunger

—Idiom 8. from hunger, Slang . deplorably bad; dreadful: The styles in coats this winter are from hunger. Also, strictly from hunger.


Possibly from the Yiddish writer S. J. Perelman who wrote a book named "Strictly from Hunger"

I will personally hazard a guess it might be a mix up

http://www.bubbygram.com/yiddishglossary.htm

Challish: (khall-ish) faint, usually from hunger. "I haven't eaten in hours! If that waiter doesn't bring our dinner soon, I'm going to challish!"

Chalushes (khal-ush-ess) Nausea or a feeling of sickness. Also, nauseating. "Did you see that dress she was wearing?! It was positively chalushes!"

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Hmm. That's interesting. You may be on to something there... –  Brian Hooper Mar 7 '11 at 12:42
    
We need to ask The Nanny ;) –  mplungjan Mar 7 '11 at 12:46
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Arriving late to the discussion, but I would have mentioned that I have ONLY heard this spoken by people with yiddish in their cultural background. –  mickeyf Dec 8 '11 at 14:52

If something is "from hunger" it means it's lousy. If somebody exclaims a song, for example, is "from hunger," they are telling you it stinks. It has nothing to do with food or hunger. Regarding etymology, I know it's older than beatnick slang because my father (New York City area, German-American, 1922-1976) used this phrase. It's origin might be in 1930s jive talk because my father was an avid follower of swing music in his youth.

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This is an expression that means "horrible". At the start of every baseball season, my grandfather would wave his hand in disgust and shout, "The Mets are from hunger this year!" I would say that this is probably a local NY area expression, mostly used by those with Yiddush in their background.

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By saying a food item is "from hunger" they are insulting the food because it is so bad that the speaker is concluding that it must have been derived from the lack of pickiness that only fends off starvation and not the enjoyment of eating. Metaphorically, the concept can be used for other things. Personally, I have never heard this phrase used before, and it has a condescending tone that makes me not want to use it.

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This sounds very reasonable to me, and I agree about the tone, which was, I think, what the writer intended. –  Brian Hooper Sep 2 '10 at 20:31
    
No. This is not accurate at all. It does not necessarily pertain to food. –  Ellie Kesselman Nov 7 '13 at 14:16

Robert Mehling has it right. It’s old jive talk and means “not good, not cool, not desired”. It has nothing to do with hunger for food or affection, etc.

As to origins, I don’t know that. I was born in 1941 (yes, children, I’m 71!) and the expression had been around for years before I was born. I used to think that Hungary was involved, as though if something from Hungary was automatically bad. But I don’t think that’s right. My mom used to say it and got all melodramatic when she said it, mocking it. As if, as an expression, she thought it was already getting obsolete.

You had to be there.

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The expression isn't heard much any more, but it was common enough in the 1920s, and a large fraction of the writers I've seen using it in that era did have some sort of Yiddish connection. In those early examples it was applied to persons rather than things, and frequently preceded by the adverb "strictly", as in "This singer is strictly from hunger." So I've always taken it as suggesting that someone was doing a job purely for the paycheck, without bringing any enthusiasm or commitment to it, or taking any satisfaction from it.

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It would appear to be a synonymn in that case for "by" or "due to" or "because of"

The patient died from hunger

The patient died due to hunger

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doesn't apply to this context –  moioci Sep 4 '10 at 0:25
    
Yep... now that the OP has updated with context. –  Armstrongest Sep 7 '10 at 16:57

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