I'm trying to understand the usage of "knew from" in the following quote:

(suddenly cleaning ladies knew from sun-dried tomatoes, suddenly hog farmers knew from creme brulee)

Source: The Corrections

To me (not a native English speaker), this seems ungrammatical. I understand the meaning of phrases like "know a from b", but I'm unable to parse this in any way that makes sense. Does "knew from" has some special meaning here?

  • Here's a bit more context. It seems clear to me the writer doesn't have a very firm grasp on "normal" written English (and there's every indication it's simply badly-translated material), so I think the cited usage is simply a mistake (typo or ignorance, take your pick). – FumbleFingers Mar 3 '15 at 18:20

No, in this case "knew from" doesn't mean deduced. It is a colloquial usage. I've mostly heard it used in the negative, in which a person says they "don't know from" sun dried tomatoes or crème brulee or whatever. When someone says it like that, they're usually portraying themselves as a simple down-to-earth person confronted with some outlandish new-fangled absurdity. Literally it means you don't know about this that or the other thing. As noted above, it derives from a Yiddish translation. In your passage, the writer was saying something about unsophisticated folk suddenly having the means of being savvy about fancy-shmancy (another Yiddishism, I believe) high-dollar noshes (to complete the Yiddish trifecta).

  • 1
    It is a Negative Polarity Item, and therefore its use here is a matter of adding strangeness to the phenomenon -- lower-class people suddenly are familiar with the food of the upper class. It's a Yiddish idiom passed into New York English. – John Lawler Mar 3 '15 at 18:37

Well I think grammatically the sentence seems correct, even though the style is a tad informal. I haven't seen this usage a lot in writing, but reading a couple of examples you've used, didn't strike me oddly. "Knew from" could easily be a synonym for deduce. So your example sentences could also be used as "suddenly cleaning ladies deduced from sun-dried tomatoes that..." Please let me know if you're looking for a different answer.

  • I don't think that works, the sentence does not continue with anything like your suggestion (see full context in link). – tengfred Mar 3 '15 at 17:31
  • Well I regret to say that was the only usage I'm aware of. I think another user by the name Sarah has given a more compelling answer to your question. Hopefully it'd be satisfying to you. – Andy Semyonov Mar 3 '15 at 17:58

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