I would like to use the phrase "living hand to mouth" as a title of an art piece. However, just looking for the phrase mostly results in uses where the origin is explained. What are notable uses of the phrase "living hand to mouth"? Are there other major literary of art uses of the phrase, and if so what are they?

  • Everybody eats hand to mouth. The idiom is living hand-to-mouth*. Aug 5, 2014 at 19:46
  • @JohnLawler derp. corrected. re-searched, got better origins, fewer errant misappropriations
    – mfg
    Aug 5, 2014 at 20:00
  • One question: why are you asking if the idiom has already been used in literary contexts? As a name of a work of art it sounds nice..
    – user66974
    Aug 5, 2014 at 20:05

1 Answer 1


The original form of the phrase appears to have been “to live from hand to mouth.” The 1756 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language notes the phrase “hand to mouth,” and cites an example from Roger L’Estrange. A later edition of the dictionary repeats the L’Estrange citation and adds two earlier ones. From Samuel Johnson & Henry Todd, A Dictionary of the English Language with Numerous Corrections and With the Addition of Several Thousand Words (1818):

HAND to mouth. As want requires.

In matter of learning, many of us are fain to be day-labourers and to live from hand to mouth, being not able to lay up any thing. B[isho]p [Edward] Reynolds [A Treatise] of the Passions [and Faculties of the Soul of Man], ch. 37. [1640]

They, good people, live but from hand to mouth. Beaum[ont] and Fl[etcher] Mad Lover. [1647]

I can get bread from hand to mouth, and make even at the year’s end. [Roger] L’Estrange. [by 1704]

An even earlier instance of the phrase appears in John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne, “Of three Commerces or Societies,” in The Essayes of Montaigne, Volume 5 (1603):

If any say to mee, It is a kinde of vilifying the Muses, to use them onely for sporte and recreation, he wots not as I doe, what worth, pleasure, sporte, and pass-time is of: I had well nigh termed all other ends ridiculous. I live from hand to mouth, and with reverence bee it spoken, I live but to my selfe : there end all my designes. Being young I studied for ostentation ; then a little to enable my selfe and become wiser ; now for delight and recreation ; never for gaine.

The phrase also comes up significantly in Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population and in William Hazlitt’s rejoinder to that work. From Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, or, A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, new and enlarged edition (1803):

The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth. Their present wants employ their whole attention; and they seldom think of the future. Even when they have an opportunity of saving, they seldom exercise it ; but all that they earn beyond their present necessities, goes, generally speaking, to the alehouse. The poor laws may, therefore, be said to diminish both the power, and the will, to save, among the common people, and thus to weaken one of the strongest incentives to sobriety and industry, and consequently to happiness.

An from William Hazlitt, A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T.R. Malthus” (1807):

Mr. Malthus proposes to remove this dazzling object [the work-house] out of their [the poor’s] way ; to make them indulge in larger views of things by setting before them the prospect of their wives and children starving, in case of any accident to themselves, and to stimulate their industry by lowering their wages. The poor live from hand to mouth, because, in general, they have no hopes of living in any other way. They seldom think of the future, because they are afraid to think of it. Their present wants employ their whole attention. This is their misfortune. … If what they earn beyond their immediate necessities goes to the ale-house, it is because the severe labour they undergo requires some relaxation, because they are willing to forget the work-house, their old age, and the prospect of their wives and children starving, and to drown care in a mug of ale, in noise, and mirth, and laughter, and old ditties, and coarse jokes, and hot disputes ; and in that sense of short-lived comfort, independence and good-fellowship, which is necessary to relieve the hurt mind and jaded body.

The phrase “living from hand to mouth” turns up in a 1641 translation of Guillaume Du Bartas, “The Handie-Crafts,” in Du Bartas, His Diuine Weekes and Workes (1641):

If they desire a Medler for their food,

They must goe seek it through a fearfull wood ;

Or a brown Mulbery, then the ragged Bramble

With thousand scratches doth their skin bescramble.

Wherefore (as yet) more led by th' appetite

Of th' hungry belly then the tastes delight,

Living from hand to mouth, soon satisfi'd,

To earn their supper th’ afternoon they ply’d.

Unstor’d of dinner till the morrow-day :

Pleas’d with an Apple, or some lesser prey.

Here is a typical later occurrence, from Henry Wood, Mrs. Halliburton’s Troubles (1798):

The Crosses, turned from their home, their furniture sold, had found lodgings ; two rooms. Improvident as ever were they. They did no attempt to rise, even to their former condition ; but groveled on, living from hand to mouth.

Instances of the phrase without from occur much later. The first two instances that a Google Books search finds are from 1912 and 1919, but the shorter form begins to appear frequently only after World War II. From a series of “Cards and postcards” copyrighted on April 15, 1912:

When love and youth live hand to mouth.—To you.

And from The Peanut Promoter (March 1919):

Our business was never better and we are consuming large quantities of peanuts. On account of the uncertainty of lifting the embargo [on peanuts from Asia], we think everyone is living "hand-to-mouth." and we firmly believe that the market will strengthen up in the near future. Stocks, of course, are getting less every day, and it was advised last month that peanut butter manufacturers on the coast will eventually have to get peanuts in the South if the embargo remains on the imported nuts.

On area where “hand to mouth” goes a bit farther back involves the expression “a hand-to-mouth existence.” The first Google Books match for this phrase is from Edward Bellamy, Equality (1897):

[T]welve per cent of the whole nation, including the very rich and the well-to-do, monopolized eighty-seven per cent of the total wealth of the country, leaving but thirteen per cent of that wealth to be shared among the remaining eighty-eight per cent of the nation. This eighty-eight per cent of the nation was subdivided into the poor and the very poor. The last, constituting fifty per cent out of the eighty-eight, or half the entire nation, had too little wealth to be estimated at all, apparently living a hand-to-mouth existence.

Another early user of this expression was Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (1913):

She saw the mistake she had made in taking money from him [Van Degen], and understood that if she drifted into repeating that mistake her future would be irretrievably compromised. What she wanted was not a hand-to-mouth existence of precarious intrigue: to one with her gifts the privileges of life should come openly.

The precise phrase “living hand to mouth” has appeared in published works for only about 100 years, and I don’t find any instances of its use that match the historical resonance of the use by Malthus and Hazlitt of “live from hand to mouth.”

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.