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Food for thought …

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.

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Michael Rundell


  • Michael, your mention of hunger being ‘part of the universal human experience’ reminds me of a lexical gap that has always intrigued me. There appears to be no word in English that simply means ‘to give someone a drink’. You EAT something, you FEED someone, you DRINK something, and you … X someone. There are, of course, restricted-use words and expressions like ‘wine and dine’, ‘water the horses’, ‘to be fed and watered’, ‘feed a baby’, but not a common general-purpose word for this most fundamental of activities.

  • Very interesting point, Andrew. I suspect the same gap is there in most Germanic languages (e.g. Dutch has ‘voeren’ (= feed) but no equivalent for giving someone a drink). However, Hungarian – a member of a totally different language family – has words for both food and drink: ‘etet’ (= give food to someone) and ‘itat’ (= give a drink to someone). You’ll see that the words are formed with a specific suffix (tat/tet), which may be the reason for the gap not existing in the first place, i.e. you don’ t need to create a completely new / different word, a suffix can do the job easily enough.

  • Old English had a liquid equivalent of ‘feed’: the causative verb ‘drencan’, corresponding to ‘drincan’ (= ‘drink’).
    (See )
    ‘Drencan’ is the ancestor of the modern word ‘drench’, which has of course a rather different, though related, meaning.

    Modern German has ‘tränken’, meaning to give water to animals, and also to soak/impregnate. Swedish has ‘dränka’ (transitive), meaning to drown, soak, etc. (literally and metaphorically) and coresponding to ‘dricka’, meaning to drink, and ‘drunkna’ (intransitive), meaning to drown.

    Pairs of morphologically-related active / causative verbs are an old feature of Germanic languages. There are relatively few in modern English, compared with German – examples include sit/set, lie/lay, fall/fell, rise/raise. In the case of drink/drench, the divergence of meaning has left the lexical gap that Andrew mentions.

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