Don’t be a Word Bore – Alternative Ways of Saying ‘Hungry’


– noun

– a strong desire or need for food

– the discomfort, weakness, or pain caused by a prolonged lack of food

– a strong desire or craving: a hunger for affection

The English language has a surprisingly large number of words that mean ‘hungry’. They describe all different kinds of hunger, from extreme forms of hunger like starvation, right through to feeling like you’d just like a small snack. Some of these words and phrases are comical, many involve references to animals and some have origins that will definitely surprise you.

The fact that so many words exist to describe states of hunger not only makes our language richer, it’s also a reminder of our less fortunate past and our struggle to survive. These words wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have a need for them and it reminds us that our ancestors really did struggle with hunger, poverty and famine.

They’ve left us a rich legacy of words that we can use to express ourselves when our bellies start to rumble…


This is a word to use when you’re feeling very hungry – so hungry your stomach is growling. It comes from the Old English famisshe and famen meaning to starve. To be famished means that you are suffering from extreme hunger and it’s also used to describe someone who has starved to death. However, when people use this word in English today they’re rarely so hungry that they’re at death’s door. This word might sound dramatic but people use it every day to describe normal to strong feelings of hunger – a great example of an English word whose meaning has softened over the years.

I’m Hank Marvin

Now here’s a way of saying hungry that you’ll hear more in London than anywhere else, because it’s an example of Cockney Rhyming Slang. Hank Marvin was a guitarist for The Shadows, a famous British band in the 1960s. He looked just like Buddy Holly, played a Fender Stratocaster, and made enough money in the pop charts to make sure he’d never go hungry – but his name does rhyme with ‘starving’ – and that’s exactly what Hank Marvin means in Cockney slang.

Feeling peckish

You had breakfast at 8am, now you’re at work and it’s 11am. It’s not quite lunch time but you’re a little hungry – this is when you’re feeling peckish. Peckish is a word you use when you feel like having something small to eat, a snack, or a ‘nibble’, rather than a full meal. It comes from the German word pekken meaning to jab with the beak – like a bird pecking at the ground for a small mouthful of food.


This word is used when you are extremely hungry, not just feeling peckish. The clue to its meaning comes from the old Latin words rapīna meaning to plunder and rapere meaning to seize, and the Old French ravineux. The English verb raven means to seize too. So this is a word to use when you feel so hungry you’ll reach out and grab the first piece of food you see and eat it greedily.

I could eat a horse!

It’s not clear where this phrase originated, but it’s probably that it arose because in many cultures it’s considered taboo to eat horse meat, horses being much-loved and respected animals. No one would willingly want to eat a horse, they would only eat the meat of this animal if they were incredibly hungry and had no alternative. The other possibility is that the horse was chosen for this phrase simply because it’s so big, and that would indicate that the person was hungry enough to eat lots and lots of food.

Hungry as a wolf/bear/lion/nanny goat/hunter/schoolboy

There are lots of ‘Hungry as’ similes in the English language, and many of them are animal-based. Of all of these similes, it seems that the link with wolves, bears and lions is the most common and the most enduring, having been part of the language for the longest time. If you’re a child of the 80s, you’ll know one of these phrases extremely well! This massive Duran Duran hit shows us another way to talk about hunger – not a hunger for food, but a hunger for love.