An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Monday, January 19, 2009

Explanations, investigations

Greetings, internet chums and anonymous wayfarers.

Allow me to begin this new blogging enterprise with an explanation of its title. "Strictly from hunger" was an idiom of 1940s America, appended to a sentence in order to express that an act was done solely out of desperation or financial need. I first came across this oddly musical phrase in a blog post by hilarious author Jack Pendarvis, and only a couple of days later I heard it uttered in the excellent 1942 gangster drama Johnny Eager. Was this synchronicity a sign of something? Of course I'm aware of the principle that after we learn a new word, we think that word is suddenly popping up all around us even though really it was there all along and just wasn't on our radar. But a forgotten expression from the '40s? Surely I was meant to adopt this phrase and use it as the title of a new blog. Surely.

The provenance of "strictly from hunger" is rather ambiguous, and as always, the internet both sheds light on the subject and adds to the confusion. This gentleman on the "Phrase Finder" message board seems to think it originated as beatnik slang before being adopted widely in the '70s as a catty dismissal of low-rent fashion. This would seem to contradict the observations of Mr. Pendarvis and myself, who have happened upon the phrase in numerous 1940s Hollywood films. A fellow over at the always-enjoyable Everything2 doesn't have a lot of information, but he does point out that "Strictly From Hunger" was the title of a 1937 collection of writings by the esteemed American humorist S.J. Perelman, a noted "idiom collector." Tantalizingly, the New Yorker offers the abstract of a 1944 story by Decla Dunning called "From Hunger"; the abstract contains the full phrase "strictly from hunger," but a paid membership is required to read the whole story. A jaunt over to IMDb informs us that Ms. Dunning wrote for the movies during the '40s as well. Her credits include the Orson Welles noir The Stranger (generally regarded as Orson's least personal and least notable film as director) and a Eugene O'Neill adaptation that I can only assume is misleadingly titled. Many google hits lead to info about a rare 1969 album by obscure psychedelic rock band Hunger, titled you-know-what.

Where does all of this take us? I don't know. I intended to write a brief introductory explanation and ended up flinging myself to the far corners of the internet in pursuit of some elusive information that is likely not interesting to anyone but myself. I'm left with the impression that the phrase is pretty elastic and, while it has had the connotation I described at the beginning of this post, it can also just mean general things like "bad" and "cheap." Maybe I should try to track down that S.J. Perelman book. In the meantime you and I can both enjoy this blog, which I promise will never again be so focused on lexicography. I'll leave you to chew on this: I am an unemployed recent college-grad in the toughest economic times since the Depression, so I guess you could say this blog is, in fact.......strictly from hunger. Thank you, thank you, I know I'm clever, thank you, you're too kind.

1 comment:

  1. I have access to The New Yorker archive. I was curious, so I looked up the story you mention. A character uses the phrase once, but there is nothing in the story that offers a definition. From the context, its meaning agrees with the definition you give in your first sentence: something done from desperation. That was always my understanding of the phrase also.