What's the meaning of the following aphorism by Karl Kraus:

Contemporaries live from second hand to mouth.

Source: Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths

Just to clarify, I know the meaning of "to live from hand to mouth" and "second hand", and the way I understand it is this, "Contemporaries live in subsistence of hearsay." Am I understanding it correctly?

  • 1
    Hello, Tayyab. The expression is a witticism that doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Sep 8, 2022 at 17:54
  • I can't guess whether the allusion is to second hand = used / recycled / hand-me-down or second hand = short-lived / ephemeral (from the sweep second hand on analogue watches). It's a bit irrelevant whether anyone else already knows the answer to that, since it's not inherently fixed by the words themselves. Sep 8, 2022 at 18:06
  • @Edwin Ashworth I do understand it's a witticism and wordplay but we can't overlook the meaning or overall sense of the aphorism.
    – Tayyab
    Sep 8, 2022 at 18:55
  • 2
    It's a mixed metaphor, combining "second-hand" with "hand-to-mouth". It's not a standard saying, the author came up with it.
    – Barmar
    Sep 8, 2022 at 21:18
  • What does hearsay have to do with this? I think you don't really understand what "hand-to-mouth" means.
    – Barmar
    Sep 8, 2022 at 21:18

1 Answer 1


This is combining two phrases that are associated with poor people.

Poor people can't afford to buy new clothes and other items, so they get things from friends and relatives, or they go to thrift shops. secondhand is a term for items that have been previously used by other people.

Living hand-to-mouth means a subsistence living, which is also a description of the life of very poor people.

The author is mixing these two metaphors to emphasize how poor these people are. They just barely get by, even though they're only buying preused items.

  • 1
    A convincing explanation of a rather arch piece of word-play by Kraus. I used to use a similar construct in French, but few people got it: “Il fait beaujourd’hui”.
    – Anton
    Sep 9, 2022 at 7:01

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.