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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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13 Answers 13

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Slang dictionary coverage of 'from hunger'

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) provides the following entry for "from hunger":

from hunger Inferior; cheap; ugly; lowbrow; disliked; unwanted; corny; hammy. 1935: Playing [music] from hunger: similar to 'corny,' meaning playing in a style to please the uneducated masses." Peabody Bulletin, Dec. 42/2. 1951: "I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger." J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, 56. Orig. assoc. with jive, swing, and jazz use c1935.

The Peabody Bulletin, cited as the source of the 1935 quotation, is a publication of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, in Baltimore, Maryland. The notion that "from hunger" originally applied to playing in a popular style in order to avoid going hungry has a special edge coming from the Peabody Conservatory, a bastion of highbrow music.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) divides divides its entry for "from hunger" into adverbial and adjectival parts, and finds one match for the adverbial sense of the word that antedates the one in the Peabody Bulletin:

hunger n. In phrase: from hunger, 1. adv. emptily, foolishly, or ineptly; (occ.) to a dismaying degree. [First two citations:] 1934 Jevne & Purcell Joe Palooka (film): I'm not talkin' from hunger! 1935 in D[ictionary of] A[merican] S[lang]: [the Peabody Bulletin quotation reproduced above.] 2. adj. most unsatisfactory, unappealing, untalented, unattractive, etc.; no good. [First two citations:] 1939 "E. Queen" Dragon's Teeth 29: That theatrical lead is strictly from hunger, I tell you! 1939–40 O'Hara Pal Joey 10: Two months ago, Joey was strictly from hunger, as they say.

The "from hunger" line presumably came from Jack Jevne, who wrote the screenplay for Palooka (based on a long-running newspaper comic strip by Ham Fisher). According to Wikipedia, Jevne was born in Provo, Utah, in 1892; his father was "a professional billiards player," and his mother "a Swedish immigrant."

On the other hand, Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yinglish (1990) [combined snippets], asserts that "from hunger" is Yinglish (his term for an amalgam of English and Yiddish):

from hunger Authentic Yinglish. From the Yiddish fun hoonger. This locution has long been popular in theatrical literary and critical circles. "Strictly" is often added to emphasize one's conviction. 1. Anything done out of severe necessity, rather than choice. "He wrote it without pleasure—but from hunger." 2. Second or third rate.

I'm somewhat suspicious of this claim, however. In Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English (1982), Rosten notes two ways in which Yiddish-inflected English uses from distinctively: (1) in place of of ("From German: von, via Yiddish: fun"); and (2) (habitually at the beginning of a sentence where, in normal English, it would more likely appear at the end (as in "from that he makes a living?" and "from that you could faint"). He freely cannibalizes all of these discussions in his later book—but the "from hunger" discussion he adds to it because it isn't in the earlier book. So from this treatment I should feel confident that Rosten knows from the origin of "from hunger"?

Lillian Feinsilver makes a similar claim in The Taste of Yiddish (1980) [combined snippets]:

The slang "from hunger" is probably from Yiddish ER SHABT FUN HUNGER (He's starving from hunger; hence, is in need, inadequate), where the "from" again takes the place of "of." Other phrases from the entertainment world, like "strictly from borsht," referring to the style associated with the borsht circuit, may be related.

Well... maybe. But where are the pre-1937 examples of "from hunger" (or "fun hunger" or "fun hoonger") being used in specifically Yiddish or Jewish settings in the critical, sarcastic, or dismissive way that "from hunger" is starting in 1934/1935?


'From hunger' in Google Books search results

A Google Books search for "from hunger' and various specific forms of that phrase yields no matches from the 1920s or from the first half of the 1930s in the relevant sense. In fact, the earliest match it finds is to S. J. Perelman's book, Strictly From Hunger (1937). Other matches appear beginning in 1939. From John O'Hara, Pal Joey, excerpted in The New Yorker, volume 15, part 3 (1939) [combined snippets]:

I told you the details and how I got creamed out of the hotel spot in Ohio & came here and made this connection. For a while I was from hunger but suddenly clicked as it were over night. With me it was one of those things, just one of those crazy things. One nite singing a lung out for dopes that wouldn't know it if I was Toscanini, Al Rinker, or Brooks John or myself. All they cared about was if I sang "Deep Purple" 75 times a nite and they were satisfied.

From "American Slang: A Glossary for Elder Readers," in Punch (1939) [combined snippets]:

Strictly from hunger. Pretty bad; in fact terrible. The "strictly" is optional. For example, you might say "As a poet, Shakespeare's from hunger." Of course you'd be wrong, since Shakespeare happens to be a pip of a poet, but then you've been wrong before, haven't you? (William Shakespeare—remember? He was one of the collaborators on Palgrave's Golden Treasury.)

And from the entry for "Artie Shaw," in Current Biography Yearbook, volume 2 (1941) [combined snippets]:

An agency signed him for a larger band using the same basic instrumentation, with other instruments added. They opened cold in a New York hotel, and though other New York jobs followed, none served to establish the group. On the road they found themselves — as musicians say — working "strictly from hunger." The agency dropped them, and they were on their own once more.


Conclusions

The origins of "from hunger" are obscure, but it seems to have achieved its first flash of popularity in music circles where "playing from hunger" meant "playing to the lowest common denominator of popular taste." From there, it seems to have rapidly acquired the broader meaning of "low-quality or low-talent [entertainment]," and from there the still broader meaning "inferior"—as in the example of the brand of pickles mentioned in the OP's quotation.

The persistent suggestion that "from hunger" is of Yiddish origin is difficult to nail down. S.J. Perelman's 1937 book, Strictly From Hunger invites readers to find that connection, since Perelman was Jewish). However, the phrase was already recorded in 1934 and 1935 in a movie script by a guy from Utah and in the house periodical of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. With some other terms that are unmistakably of popular Yiddish origin, Yiddish versions of the word or phrase are recorded in Yiddish or English Jewish sources. But with "fun hoonger" and "fun hunger" and "from hunger" Google Books searches yield no pre-1937 matches with an unmistakable Jewish connection that reflect the sardonic sense of badness that the earliest non-Yiddish instances of the phrase do.

Fred Kogos, Book of Yiddish Proverbs and Slang (1970) offers this proverb of unknown date (but presumably older than the 1930s):

Fun hunger shtarbt men nor in a hunger-yor. [You can die of hunger only in a year of famine.]

But there is nothing metaphorical or sardonic about this usage—and no clear-cut examples of crossover use in the U.S. entertainment industry prior to 1937. I remain persuadable on this point, but not yet persuaded.

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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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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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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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1  
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

I grew up with hearing my parents say "someone was strictly from hunger" usually referring to inlaws. I had the idea it meant from poor immigrant backgrounds. It sort of went along with "basement relatives" that lived in basement apartments who's front doors were in the alleys and not on the street. To me it had the idea of a person that came to America and still lived as they were in the the old country.

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My father has used that expression all his life. He was born in 1920, which is in agreement with the idea that the expression was somewhat common through the 1920s-1940's. From context I always understood it to mean, as others have stated, of poor quality, a last resort. Interestingly, he is from New Hampshire with no Yiddish connections. Perhaps if the expression arose primarily in NY it spread throughout the NorthEast.

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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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My Italian father, from New York, used this expression as early as 1950. Simply means: lousy, bad, it sucked.

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My mother (born 1929) used the phrase, "from hunger," (usually "strictly from hunger,") to refer to something that was so bad it was pitiful. I think it started with, say, someone fainting from hunger, which was pitiful, and extended to general use in judgment of a situation. It also carries a nuance of unnecessarily, egregiously pitiful, as in, no one should have to faint from hunger. So, this comedian is strictly from hunger, means she is more pathetic and bad than anyone has any right to be.

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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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