Joel Berg’s blog on the use (and avoidance) of the word hunger shows how words can gain (and lose) meanings in response to social and environmental changes. Historically, hunger was part of the universal human experience – like war, plague, drought and famine.
For far too many people, these remain more than just abstract concepts (as the terrible floods in Pakistan remind us), but in the more affluent and secure parts of the world, words like these are as likely to be used figuratively as literally.
Hunger is a very old English word – the earliest use recorded in the OED dates back to the 9th century – but its extended use didn’t appear until about 600 years later. As the threat of real hunger receded (in some places, at least), words like hungry, starving, and famine took on new uses – either being employed rhetorically to exaggerate a minor discomfort (‘Hurry up, we’re starving!’) or figuratively, in various scenarios.
Our corpus shows that hunger is frequently used with for, and the commonest collocates are power, success, knowledge, truth, and justice (but never food). Hungry works in much the same way, but thirst+for occurs most often either with knowledge, or with words like blood and revenge. (You can find all this information in the Macmillan Collocations Dictionary.)
Drought and famine can be found in sporting contexts, with several references to a team’s ‘goal famine’, or a country’s ‘medal drought’. Plague is used twice as often as a verb as in its original noun use, and people are plagued not only by doubts and problems, but by relatively trivial inconveniences such as ‘unsolicited phone calls’ or ‘minor technical bugs’.
So the same word may be used very differently in different parts of the world. In the more secular societies of Europe, words like sacrifice, heresy, and blasphemy only retain their literal senses in historical or anthropological texts, whereas in other regions they may still be salient concepts.
Another fundamental concept is that of the journey: our early ancestors were perpetually on the move, so – as writers like Bruce Chatwin recognised – humans are inherently nomadic. Not surprisingly, the idea of life as a journey is a basic part of our metaphorical system and has been part of the language for a long time. So here, too, the word has a strong preference for figurative uses, and the corpus shows hundreds of examples of spiritual, personal, and musical journeys. More recently, though, the word has suffered from overexposure in talent shows like the X Factor and Pop Idol: anyone who reaches the final (or even gets close) invariably describes their experience as ‘a journey’ – to the point where the whole idea has become an irritating cliché. But this hasn’t stopped Tony Blair using exactly this expression as the title for his forthcoming autobiography!
Meanwhile, a final word on the development mentioned by Joel, whereby the literal use of hunger and similar words is deliberately avoided when referring to contemporary western societies. It is as if eliminating the word does away with the problem, and that’s the kind of language engineering we need to keep a watchful eye on.Email this Post