Hand to mouth

Hand to mouth is an idiom that has been in use at least since the 1600s, though it became quite common during the 1930s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beating around the bush, jump the gun, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, Achilles heel, barking up the wrong tree, back to the drawing board, a dime a dozen, drop in the bucket, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression hand to mouth, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

The term hand to mouth is usually used in the phrases living hand to mouth and living from hand to mouth, meaning eking out one’s existence from day to day or even from moment to moment. If someone lives from hand to mouth, he has no savings or reserve. In the most extreme circumstances of living hand to mouth, a person does not know from day to day whether he will have food to eat or a place to sleep. Most often, the person who is described as living hand to mouth is living just short of meeting all his financial obligations, and must economize and save money where he can. The term hand to mouth goes back at least to the 1600s, and may be linked to a time of famine in Britain. One may imagine that if someone is starving, the moment food is put into his hand, it goes straight into his mouth. The term living hand to mouth came into prominent use in th3 1930s during The Depression, when many people lived lives of deprivation. The term hand to mouth is hyphenated when used as an adjective before a noun, as in hand-to-mouth.


More than half of young Britons are living “hand to mouth”, according to a new survey. (The Independent)

The family lived hand to mouth and there were days when Ilangavon and his younger brother had gone to bed hungry. (The Weekend Leader)

He said: “We have to pay Cumbernauld to use their facilities – we really are living hand to mouth and if we didn’t have such a good president in Neil Anderson, I don’t know what we would have done.” (The Kirkintilloch Herald)
“It’s hand to mouth, hand to mouth,” said Kevin Donald, 34, a former security guard who now scrapes by cleaning car windows. (The Financial Times)

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