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What Does It Mean to Live off the "Fat of the Land"?

By Bryce Clinton
Updated May 23, 2024
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The saying "living off the fat of the land" means to live well by taking advantage of the world's abundance and whatever the world has to offer. The expression implies living comfortably without too much hardship. Taking advantage of what the world has to offer can be understood in relation to any set of circumstances, ranging from an agrarian existence to the highest degree of modern affluence. Sometimes the idiom also implies opulence, excess or laziness, but these are secondary connotations.

Early definitions of the word "fat" refer to the best, richest or most rewarding part of something. In this sense, one of the earliest references to this phrase comes from the King James Bible, in Genesis 45:17-18. Here, Joseph is instructed to go to Canaan, where he will be given "the good of the land of Egypt." He is told that upon his arrival he will "eat the fat of the land." This passage suggests that the land will yield abundance for his family.

"Living off the fat of the land" has historically carried a sense of abundance yielded from the Earth itself, such as from plentiful crops grown in rich soil or from a cornucopia of naturally available resources. This phrase might refer to a lush natural environment that needs little cultivation to sustain human life — a place good for farming, fishing, hunting or anything else that is immediately life-sustaining. Modern interpretations might include reference to valuable things beneath the land, such as gems or fossil fuels. Other interpretations might extend the historical meaning to the realms of industry, commerce or economics.

When the expression is applied to a natural environment, it often denotes farming, anti-consumerism or a simple lifestyle. Such references might include the idea of a "return to nature" in which individuals might abandon the complexities of modern society to simply "live off the fat of the land." This meaning is almost the opposite of another modern connotation that equates the expression with affluence and excess.

In cases where the idiomatic expression "living off the fat of the land" refers to first-world affluence, the implication is that this bounty has come relatively easily to whomever has it. A negative value judgment is sometimes attached to this usage of easy prosperity, but not always. When the idiom references great wealth, there is often an implied complacency, false entitlement or sense of wealth taken for granted.

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Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Jan 13, 2014

Thanks Amy, for responding.

I personally think being able to live off the land is a very good survival skill to have. That being said, wouldn't it also mean that the person in question would be "tied down" to the land he/she is relying on? They can't just up and move to another area, let's say, when living conditions are no longer good (perhaps a demographic change. Maybe the illegal Mexicans have moved in? For example.)

Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking it at all. I just think that people need to be very careful, and to have considered everything before committing themselves to living this way.

By amypollick — On Oct 27, 2013

@Jessiwan: You don't need specialized knowledge, or a large area of land. My parents had a summer garden outside the backyard fence that provided a family of four with vegetables all summer long. If someone has the time, vegetables can be grown year round. People can grow beets and other root vegetables in the U.S. year round in all but the coldest areas, and we also have winter squash, as well as other vegetables. The Native Americans lived this way for centuries. In the Northeast, they were not nomadic, as they were in the Southwest, and pretty much stayed in their villages all year.

People have also learned methods of food preservation at home, so they can freeze or can the products of their summer gardens for year-round eating.

Mostly, you need common sense and some knowledge of good gardening practices, which is available everywhere.

By jessiwan — On Oct 27, 2013

But don't you need some sort of specialized knowledge in order to grow enough food to live on, all year around? And I think you would need a lot of land for this to happen too. Most people can't afford it.

By everetra — On Dec 29, 2011

@SkYWhisperer - Well, if you really believe that there is certainly nothing preventing you from planting your own garden.

I know of some people who are survivalists. Their plan is to live off the harvest of the Earth and totally disconnect from the “grid” of society.

I wouldn’t go that far, but the point I’m making is that we can all till soil and plant seeds, if that’s the lifestyle you want, regardless of what’s happening around us.

By SkyWhisperer — On Dec 28, 2011

@miriam98 - I agree. What a difference several millennia make in the usage of the term. The Biblical use of the term was good. I think that should reinforce the idea that Biblical notions of wealth and prosperity are good things, not bad.

Many people don’t embrace that because they point to parts of the globe where people are living in poverty, but in my opinion, those are places where unethical people have controlled the natural resources of the region, and deprived the common folk from accessing them.

I think it’s everyone’s right to live off the fat of the land.

By miriam98 — On Dec 27, 2011

I think the negative connotation of this phrase is the one we are more accustomed to. The fat of the land is the surplus wealth of society, which rich people enjoy.

Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich; there is only something wrong with being greedy. Nonetheless being rich does have a certain negative aspect to it, as if rich people always exploited poor people in order to get ahead in life.

This is not necessarily true but the perception still exists. I think we need to get back to the earlier usage of the term, living off of Earth’s bounty.

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