Grounds for revolt.
Dear Word Detective: I was wondering whether you could investigate the origin of the phrase “the daily grind.” I was watching a program called “Secrets of the Castle” in which people in France are recreating a medieval castle. In reference to setting up a water-powered mill to grind flour, one of the English presenters said “This is the end of the daily grind.” Is this correct — that “daily grind” means the chore of grinding grain by hand each day to make bread? — Sarah, Australia.
Hey, that sounds like my kind of show. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages, and I’ve even gotten estimates for a moat around our house. Way too expensive, it turns out. But since our neighbors refuse to wear the nice burlap smocks I made for them, I’ve put my project on hold for the moment anyway. You just can’t get good serfs anymore. Oh well, more mead for me, varlets.
Meanwhile, back at “the daily grind” on that TV show, I’d take that as a bit of a pun rather than a serious explanation of the origin of the term. In the beginning, there was the verb “to grind,” which comes from the Old English “grindan,” meaning “to crush into small pieces, to rub together, to reduce to small particles or powder.” One of the main senses of “to grind” early on was, of course, “to make grain into flour in a mill by crushing between two hard surfaces.” But by the early 17th century it was also being used figuratively to mean “to oppress, to wear down” (“Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” 1764).
“Grind” as a noun followed the same evolutionary path, and by the mid-19th century it was being used metaphorically to describe a dull and difficult task, especially a highly repetitive one (“Weary of the eternal work, of the everlasting grind, of the whirl of London life.” 1866). Thus it wasn’t until 1853 (long after feudalism) that the first use of “daily grind” appeared in print meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “A daily routine of work or activity, especially as considered to be dull or tiresomely repetitious; the usual day’s work or routine, regarded as unremitting and laborious” (“He took refuge in bookshops at lunchtime and wrote long into the night when he was released from his daily grind.” 1983).
By the way, mills, millers and the things they grind have played an important role in human society, and language, pretty much since day one. Here’s a link to a fascinating piece by lexicographer and etymologist Michael Quinion of World Wide Words (http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/miller.htm) on his visit to a historic California mill and the words derived from or associated with milling.