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shameless pleading


Look out below.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, upon gazing into the Genesee River Gorge (nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the East, and for good reason!), it occurred to me that there are two seemingly-unrelated meanings of the word “gorge”: (1) To stuff yourself uncomfortably full of food, and (2) the aforementioned “river gorge.” Are these two words related? How did they come about? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Behold, and tremble before, the awesome power of advertising: you say Genesee, and I immediately think “beer,” and I don’t even like beer. Given my Pavlovian tractability, I guess it’s not surprising that I can sing the entire old Rheingold Beer jingle from memory (“My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer. It’s not bitter, not sweet, it’s the extra dry treat. Won’t you try extra dry Rheingold beer?”). Of course, it didn’t hurt the memorability of that jingle that the melody was lifted from Emile Waldteufel’s catchy Estudiantina waltz. In any case, Genesee Beer is made in your hometown of Rochester in Upstate New York, so all that is at least tangentially relevant.

I found some pictures online of the Genesee River Gorge, a deep, narrow valley cut by the river, which apparently boasts not one, but three dramatic waterfalls. It does look a bit like the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon had far more trees. And I have no doubt that somewhere in that vicinity you can buy bumper stickers proclaiming the Genesee River Gorge “Gorgeous!” (I know you can buy the equivalent in Ithaca, which has smaller, but still very nice, gorges.)

“Gorge” as a noun first appeared in English in the early 15th century with the meaning “throat,” of either humans or animals, derived from the Old French “gorge,” which in turn was based on the Latin “gurges,” meaning “throat, jaws, gullet” (also the source of our English “regurgitate”). A number of the early uses of “gorge” had to do with falconry, but the only literal use of “gorge” you’re likely to see today is in such phrases as “my gorge rose,” describing a growing sense of disgust.

“Gorge” went on to be used in various figurative senses to describe things resembling in some sense a throat, e.g., a narrow passage through a wall. The use of “gorge” for a narrow, deep ravine, especially one cut by a river or containing a stream, arose in the mid-18th century and is particularly apt, given that the water flows through a narrow passage as it would in a throat.

The verb “to gorge” appeared around the same time as the noun, but meant, right from the start, “To fill the gorge; to feed greedily” (Oxford English Dictionary), initially with regard to falcons and other birds of prey (whose throats become “engorged” when they eat a lot of food). But soon “gorge” was also being applied to humans in the sense of “to stuff oneself greedily with food, to eat to excess” (“Dick fell upon eggs and bacon and gorged till he could gorge no more,” Rudyard Kipling, 1891). If you’ve ever been to one of those all-you-can-eat emporiums that dot the US suburbs, you’ve seen “gorging” in all its, uh, glory. That “eat ’til you drop” sense of “gorge” is still the primary one today, but you’ll also often see “gorge” used in a metaphorical sense of “to acquire or take more than is right, to hoard or plunder” (“The single passion of D’Ancre was inordinate avarice; he gorged on wealth,” 1828).

So both “gorge” the noun and “to gorge” the verb are based on the general sense of “throat.” The adjective “gorgeous,” I am obligated to note, is considered unrelated to “gorge,” as it was derived from the Old French “gorgias,” meaning “fine or elegant.” But some authorities have suggested that there is indeed a connection, and that the source of “gorgias” may have been our Old French friend “gorge” (throat), in this case carrying the derivative sense of “jewelry for the throat” (i.e., a necklace), which was then generalized to mean “very beautiful.”

1 comment to Gorge

  • Ben

    I was looking on the site because, at 84, I was experiencing an unusual sensation. Being, at the moment rather food averse (after a couple of weeks ‘blocked-up’ -but now not), when I find some food that I feel I can eat, all goes well for a few mouthfuls, then suddenly I start to feel a ‘rising’ sensation in my throat and then it feels blocked and will not tolerate any more of that food. NOT as if I will ‘throw-up’, just a revulsion.
    I wondered if I could find a physical explanation – what actually does rise?

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