Something to talk about.
Dear Word Detective: My question is the origin of the phrase “heard it through the grapevine.” I’ve seen several different answers and would like to hear it from the source, meaning you. — Jack O’Hea.
The source? Me? No, grasshopper. I am merely a conduit for the wisdom of the world, and if I sometimes see further than others, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants and block their view.
I’m sure that by now most of us have the Marvin Gaye version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” his 1968 Motown hit, running through our heads, especially the dum dum dum dum dumdumdumdum intro. (Personally, I’m partial to The Platters’ “Workin’ My Way Back to You, Babe,” but whatever.) The relevance of that song to us is that it perfectly illustrates the meaning of the title; the singer hears that his girlfriend is planning to leave him, not from her own lips, but from rumors (“It took me by surprise I must say/When I found out yesterday/Don’t you know that I heard it through the grapevine/Not much longer would you be mine”).
In a literal sense, a “grapevine” is, of course, the twisting, ropy vine on which grapes grow. The metaphorical “grapevine” by which news and rumors grow and propagate first appeared in popular speech in the mid-1800s during the US Civil War. “Grapevine” in this sense is actually a shortening of the original term “grapevine telegraph,” a sardonic nod to the actual electric telegraph, which was then becoming established across the US as an important means of communication. With the coming of the Civil War also came the rupturing of conventional communications channels, and the “grapevine telegraph,” especially among slaves in the South, became an important source of information to residents of the area (as well as intelligence of military importance to the Union forces). As Booker T. Washington noted in his book “Up from Slavery” (1901), “They kept themselves informed of events by what was called the ‘grape-vine telegraph.'”
Of course, since information passed on the “grapevine” was of dubious provenance when it began its journey and often modified or mangled en route (much as in the old child’s game “Telephone”), to call a bit of news “grapevine” was often to cast doubt on its veracity (“I’ll bet you a day’s ration of hardtack that it’s only ‘nother o’ those grapevines” 1887). But the utility of the “grapevine telegraph” during the war made it a enduring slang term for “information passed from an inside source,” at least a few steps above a mere rumor and quite possibly “the real deal.”
The “grapevine” is more important than ever in today’s internet-driven Kardashian-obsessed media landscape. Now any old schmuck with wi-fi can can ruin a career (often their own) or spawn a dubious social movement with a single Tweet. But the old word-of-mouth grapevine had one big advantage: for people to pass along a rumor, they had to find it at least vaguely plausible. Today, “Hillary is a shape-shifting lizard from another dimension” gets 14,000 retweets. That’s progress of a very curious kind.