The Grammarphobia Blog

Hunger pangs or pains?

Q: What is the difference between a “hunger pang” and a “hunger pain”? I see both terms, but I can’t find them in my dictionary.

A: “Pain” is an older, broader term than “pang,” but people use “hunger pains” and “hunger pangs” pretty much the same way—for the feeling of discomfort that comes from being hungry. (The two phrases usually appear in the plural.)

Although the two of us use “hunger pains” to describe what we feel when dieting gets out of hand, “hunger pangs” is apparently the more common term, according to our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases.

For example, “hunger pangs” appears more than eight times as often as “hunger pains” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. And as of 2008 it was more than two and a half times as popular in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books.

Both phrases are acceptable. We haven’t found any usage guide that objects to either of them. Here are a few recent examples in which the two phrases seem to be used the same way:

“Think of it as a cold soup in a tall glass, your morning smoothie regreened, with no sugar rush and subsequent hunger pangs” (the Guardian, July 17, 2019).

“If you do feel a few hunger pangs, you may need a light snack” (the Seattle Times, June 27, 2019).

“Or maybe you reliably experience hunger pangs and an energy crash a few hours after your morning pastry” (Self, June 27, 2019).

“Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to hear the Gospel if there is the roar of hunger pains from their belly” (National Catholic Register, July 7, 2019).

“So how do we keep these hunger pains away when we are trying to be healthy and follow a diet program, restricting food?” (the Valley Patriot, North Andover, Mass., June 2019).

“The last hours can be excruciating and that is when you start feeling hunger pains, which give you a real perspective on how a hungry person feels year-round” (Idaho Statesman, June 17, 2019).

When used by itself, “pain” usually refers to physical or emotional suffering in general, while “pang” means sudden, sharp, and brief physical or emotional suffering, according to standard dictionaries.

English borrowed “pain” from French in the late 13th century (it was peine, paine, paigne, etc., in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French). The word ultimately comes from poena, classical Latin for “penalty” or “punishment.”

When “pain” first appeared in Middle English, it referred to “physical or bodily suffering” as well as “mental distress or suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s earliest example for bodily pain is from Of Arthour and of Merlin, an anonymous Arthurian romance believed written in the late 1200s:

“What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”). The passage refers to Belisent, who’s beaten, whipped, and dragged by the hair as King Taurus tries to kidnap her. Sir Gawain kills Taurus and rescues her.

The dictionary’s earliest mental example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance believed written sometime before 1300:

“Tristrem is went oway / Wiþ outen coming ogain, / And sikeþ, for soþe to sain, / Wiþ sorwe and michel pain” (“Tristan leaves without turning back, sighs forsooth and crosses himself, with sorrow and much pain”). The passage refers to Tristan’s emotional suffering as he parts with Iseult.

The noun “pang,” which is “of uncertain origin,” first appeared in the late 15th century and meant “a sudden sharp spasm of pain which grips the body or a part of it,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 29, 1482, letter by William Cely, a member of a merchant family, about the death and burial of a family member:

“Margere ys dowghter ys past to Godd. Hytt was berydd thys same daye, on whoys sowle Jhesu hawe marsy. Syr, I vnderstond hytt hadd a grett pang: what sycknesse hytt was I cannott saye” (“Margaret, his daughter, is gone to God. She was buried this same day, on whose soul Jesus have mercy. Sir, I understand she had a great pang: what sickness it was I cannot say”).

In the early 16th century, “pang” took on the sense of “a sudden sharp feeling of mental anguish or intense emotional pain.” The earliest example in the OED is from A Play of Loue (1534), by John Heywood:

“One pang of dyspayre, or one pang of desyre / One pang of one dyspleasaunt loke of her eye / One pang of one worde of her mouth as in yre / Or in restraynt of her loue which I requyre.”

As we’ve said, “pain” is a broader term than “pang.” In addition to its usual sense of physical and emotional discomfort, “pain” can refer to the trouble taken to accomplish something (“He took great pains to file the taxes on time”), an annoyance (“Those robocalls are a pain”), a  troublesome person (“He’s a pain in the butt”), and a penalty for disobedience (“Mom ordered me to be home by eleven on pain of death”).

We’ll end with a more serious example of that last sense. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from the South-English Legendary (circa 1300), which chronicles the lives of church figures. In an account of Thomas Becket’s life, King Henry II orders bishops to Clarendon Palace in the 12th century to confirm laws that weakened the authority of the church and its ties to Rome:

“ich hote ov euerechone  þat ȝe beon þat ilke dai at mi maner at Clarindone with-outen ani de-lai for-to confermi þis lawes. ope peyne þat i schal ou sette, ich hote þat ȝe beon þare ech-one” (“I order every one of you to be that same day at my palace at Clarendon, without any delay, to confirm these laws. I command that you be there, each of you, upon pain that I shall set on you”).

Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did show up at Clarendon, but he ultimately defied the laws and was killed at Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170, by four of the king’s knights.

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