linguistics and lexicography Love English

Starved with the cold

There has been a lot of talk lately about The Hunger Games. Though I haven’t seen or read it yet, it reminded me of a conversation I had on Twitter about a lesser-known meaning of the word starve.

In Ireland, especially the northern province of Ulster, you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry. Often it appears in a longer set phrase, such as starved/starving with the cold. And not just in Ireland: one source says the idiom exists in the Yorkshire dialect, while a recent political report quotes a French farmer saying: “people in Europe are dying and starving from the cold.”

Far from being innovative, the usage comes from a very old sense of the word. Starve is descended from the Old English word steorfan, meaning die – without implicit reference to the means of death – which came from the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root *ster, meaning stiff or rigid. Ireland and a few other places have preserved this meaning of starve in colloquial expressions.

Etymonline tells us that in the 14th century the meaning of starve narrowed to “die of cold”, and later took on the more familiar senses “kill with hunger” and “die of hunger”. We see the early broader sense retained in German and Dutch, where sterben and sterven, respectively, are the cognate verbs for die.

The story of starve illustrates a common semantic process – known as narrowing, restriction, or specialisation – whereby a word’s field of reference contracts. For example, accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something that happens by chance, then something unfortunate that happens by chance: happening to happenstance to mishap. (Sometimes the different senses exist in parallel.) In the 20th century, accident gained a still narrower meaning: a child whose conception was not planned.

Similarly, an undertaker was any contractor: someone who undertakes to do work; centuries later it became more specialised, restricted to funeral undertaker. Girl used to refer to a child of either sex, deer meant animal, and meat (mete in Old English) was any kind of food. Affection was once a feeling in general; science, knowledge in general. Engine meant natural talent, ingenuity or clever device before the industrial revolution tied it more closely to a device producing mechanical power.

The meanings of all these words have narrowed to a more specific domain. Sometimes, too, the opposite occurs and words take on a broader sense; this is known as semantic broadening or generalisation. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • My Yorkshire grandmother certainly used to use ‘starving’ to mean ‘feeling very cold’.

    It appears that Joseph Daul is not only a French farmer but also leader of the European People’s Party. Was he speaking English when he said “hundreds of people in Europe are dying and starving from the cold”? Unlikely, I think – later, he says “We must all knuckle down to tackle this scandal.” But in any case, which meaning of ‘starve’ did he, or the translator, intend? I’d say it was probably ‘suffering from hunger’.

    The noun ‘starvation’ is of interest in being one of the few examples of the Latinate suffix -ation being added to a native English word.

    I suppose you could say that in German an Unternehmer is someone who undertakes to do a job for you, while in English an undertaker is someone who takes you under!

    From the PIE root *ster also come starch, stare, stern (the adj., not the n.), stereo and stork (stiff-legged bird).

    My grandmother also used to starch bedsheets and put them through a mangle, and do lots of other things, and say lots of other things, that people don’t do, and don’t say, nowadays.

  • Jonathan: It’s good to have the Yorkshire source confirmed. It was Simeon Potter’s book Our Language that mentioned it. A comparable phrase is “famished with the cold”, which is also quite common in Ireland. T. P. Dolan’s dictionary of Hiberno-English says famished in this context is equivalent to suffering, which corresponds nicely with what you wrote about starving. I wondered what part translation played in that report of Joseph Daul’s comments.
    ‘you could say that . . . in English an undertaker is someone who takes you under!’ There’s a folk etymology waiting to happen!

  • Does this semantic process of narrowing apply to the word “corn” as well? I read that at first it meant cereal in general but nowadays it refers to the kind of cereal that is most prominent in a given region, e.g. oats in Scotland and wheats in England.
    Thanks Jonatahn Marks for posting your comment by the way!

  • Solange: Yes, it does; it’s a good example. In Old English it referred to a small seed or grain, especially of a cereal, and there was also a dialectal usage that referred to a small hard particle, such as salt or sand. Etymonline says corn was “locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district”, and this remains the case to a degree.
    I came across another familiar example recently, in David Crystal’s book “The Fight for English”: result meaning successful result, i.e. win, as in a sportsperson’s “We got a result.”

  • Thanks, Michael. I see it’s labelled informal British. I wonder if it has any currency in US speech — I don’t really follow American sports.

  • On that last comment: no, ‘result’ alone would imply nothing in American sports; you’d have to say ‘good result,’ or something similar. On the other hand, and in a more general context, AmE uses plural ‘results’ (sense 5 in Macmillan) identically, to mean “good outcome.”

    On corn: this word is often a confusion for Americans reading older and British English and thinking that ‘corn’ means ‘maize’ (as it does in AmE) — for example, in the term ‘corn laws’. I expect that AmE ‘corn’ is narrowing of ‘Indian corn,’ maize being the main cereal crop that English colonists found the Indians growing when they landed here.

  • Thanks for clearing that up, Orin. Another fairly common way that restricted result is used, which occurred to me just now, is as an standalone exclamation: “Result!”, much as one might say “I won!” or “We won!”.

  • I was born in Donegal, and “starvin” with the cold was common usage. Our area, west of Letterkenny, had many people originally of Scottish background. One old farmer, seeing me coming from school, told me,
    ” Ye maun hae the reet wee heed on ye”. Another, remarking on the many children in Letterkenny, said
    “The town is hoochin with waens”

    My spelling of some of those words are approximations!

  • Thanks for your comment, Gerry. I had fun reading those lines aloud!
    I used wain in conversation last week and had to explain it.

  • In Scotland it’s usually spelled ‘wean’ (though still pronounced like ‘wain’). There is a shop in Glasgow that sells toys, baby clothes etc., with the brilliant name ‘Weans’ World’.

  • A word which has never been part of Standard English but which lives on in other dialects is clem, meaning to suffer with hunger or thirst. It is also associated with cold in one of the OED’s quotations: “Their company was clemmed: and much cold did suffer; water was a worthy drinke: win it who might” (around 1540). It also takes the form clam, which shows its connection with clamp, something that squeezes or presses, as the bowels do when one is very hungry.

    This also reminds me of my favorite lexical gap in English: starve can mean to die of hunger as well as to suffer from hunger, but we have no word meaning ‘die of thirst’. Perhaps this is because until the last two centuries or so with the settlement of the American West and Australia English-speakers only lived in fairly well-watered places.

    Wean, says the OED, is short for wee ane, Scots for ‘little one’. The verb wean is unrelated, but another nice example of semantic narrowing. In Old English it meant ‘accustom, get used to’ in general, but to wean a child today is always to get it used to eating solid food.

  • John: Very interesting – I hadn’t come across clem before. Jonathon Green also mentions the phrase do a clem, meaning to starve or waste from hunger. Clench and cling have similar sounds and related meanings to clam and clamp, but I don’t know if there’s an etymological connection. There doesn’t appear to be.
    Regarding the lexical gap: it’s a wonder drought never gave rise to a verb form. Looking it up, I came across drouk, which means drench, as with heavy rain (from Old Norse drukna, be drowned). Funny how these near-antonyms sit side by side alphabetically.

  • Nice post. I didn’t know that girl used refer to a child. But it reminds me of a once common expression in the west of Ireland: “Is it a boy or a child?”.

  • Thanks, Niall. It’s a funny expression, though I’ve read discussion where people take offence at it. Anatoly Liberman’s Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology says that child is a common word for “girl” in some British dialects, and that the first literary example of the usage is in Shakespeare. I think it appears in Newfoundland, too, and the variant phrase “is it a lad or a child?” still occurs in Shropshire, according to the English Dialect Dictionary.

  • Thanks, RW. I studied Wuthering Heights in school but I don’t remember that. I think my sister will be teaching it next year, so I must tell her to keep an eye out for it.

  • Growing up south of Manchester, I remember the phrase ‘I’m starved to death’ always meant very cold, not hungry. Also ‘it’s starvation in here’ referred to the temperature of the room.

  • Delighted to find this. I’m from County Derry originally and my wife often comments on some of my words. Starvin always made her guffaw but not now Ha! Another we used was from my mum, the word being ‘hoke’. Used when she found me looking for something in a way that seemed I was up to no good. ‘what are ye looking for there’s or ‘have a good hoke about’ Anyway, many thanks for the info.

  • Thanks for your comment, Kyle! I’m glad the discussion of starving rang true. Hoke is not a word I use myself, or hear in the west of Ireland, but I looked it up and found that it comes from Scottish howk, hoke “dig, burrow”, which is derived (via Old Scots and Middle English) from Low Germanic holken “make hollow”. Heaney used it in his translation of Beowulf: “Tidings for the eagle of how he hoked and ate.”

  • My mother in law in ayrshire and the rest of her family used to say whenever there was a bitter winter wind blowing “it’s starvation ‘oot there!”

  • I worked as a nurse in Gwynedd, North Wales and many of the Welsh-speaking nurses would say, “I’m starving” when they meant “freezing”.

  • Mrs Gaskell uses clemmed in her 19th century novel Mary Barton set in Ancoats, Manchester. She uses the phrase ‘“fair clemmed” more than once.
    My mother, born 1930 and her sisters often used the word starved do to mean cold. She was born and raised in Warrington, then South Lancs but now Cheshire.

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