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shameless pleading

Wrinkles in one’s belly

Strictly from hunger.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a 1988 article about the movie “The Manchurian Candidate” in the Washington Post, and came across this: “Back then those two boys — Frankenheimer and Axelrod — had wrinkles in their bellies and worked and turned out this marvelous picture.” It’s a quote from Richard Condon, the author of the book that was made into the movie. I just assume that the statement implies the two had been bent over, working very hard, and thus wrinkles formed on their front sides. I’ve never heard this expression before and wondered about its origin. I had little to no luck finding anything about it anywhere. — Becky de Wit.

Thanks for a very interesting question. By the way, but was there any special reason you were reading that review in an election year? Some little bit of insight you’d like to share with us? Not that I care, personally. I’ll just vote for Harold Stassen like I always do.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is a great movie, at least the original 1962 version written by George Axelrod, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. The 2004 remake with Denzel Washington was, in my opinion, a bad idea.

I’m not surprised that you had no luck tracking down “wrinkles in their bellies.” It’s a fairly obscure figure of speech today, although it was once more well-known, at least among certain sectors of society. “To have wrinkles in your belly” was slang, probably originally among hobos, for being very hungry, specifically to be chronically underfed and thus emaciated. In the context of the quotation you cite, Condon probably meant that Axelrod and Frankenheimer were “hungry young men” full of eagerness and energy to do a good job (as opposed to overfed studio hacks). The phrase is also used in a more general sense to mean “in need of money.”

It’s difficult to date “wrinkles in one’s belly” because most compilations of slang seem to overlook the phrase. A short form of it is included in an article entitled “The Vocabulary of Bums,” published in the journal American Speech in 1929 (“Wrinkles: creases in the stomach caused by postponing too many meals”), and it crops up in a 1945 quote from famed band leader Tommy Dorsey in a biography published in 2005. Speaking to a band member who had quit the band, Dorsey said, “Got enough wrinkles in your belly? Are you ready to come back?” A positive form of the phrase (“to get the wrinkles out of your belly”) is defined in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld as “settling down to prison life,” apparently because a stretch in the slammer meant regular meals, a novelty to many new inmates. My guess is that the phrase dates to the early 20th century, although it may be much older. Hunger among poor people is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon.

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