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It’s what’s for dinner.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband is retired military and he was talking earlier this evening about his early years in the service (I do mean early — he enlisted in 1954). He has often wondered how the expression “chow” came to be used for meals in the service, and although he has asked many people, no one seems to know. Can you help? — C.S.

Wow. 1954? That’s before Elvis was in the Army, back when it was possible to be insanely rich and still get drafted. Back when, if you stayed home from school, the only thing on TV was “December Bride.” Back when “Mad Men” meant loons like George Metesky (the New York City “Mad Bomber” with a grudge against Con Ed) and America looked to Joe Friday (or Hopalong Cassidy) for safety.  Or so I hear, since I’m only 39.

“Chow” meaning “food” in a general sense first appeared in the mid-19th century in the US. Its source seems to have been the English-Chinese pidgin term “chow chow,” also meaning “food.” A “pidgin” (pronounced “pid-jin”) language is a simplified version of a language developed to allow communication between two groups that do not share a common language; “chow chow” was listed in a pidgin glossary that was in use by British embassy personnel in China in the late 19th century. The connection of “chow chow” to any known Chinese word is shaky, but “ch’ao” or “ch’au” (both “to fry”) is a possibility. Bad jokes aside, there is no demonstrable connection between “chow chow” and the “Chow” dog breed, originally from China.

While the origin of “chow chow” may be murky, there’s no mystery about how the term  came to the US. The railroad system in this country, especially in the western states, was built in large part by many thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers. “Chow chow” and the simplified form “chow” were part of the Chinese-English pidgin that gradually percolated into American slang, especially in those two grand repositories of slang in any society, prisons and the armed forces. Today in the US we “chow down” on pizza with our “chow hound” friends, and though the word remains slightly informal, most folks haven’t a clue it came from China.

Speaking of military food, the term “mess” for a meal or place of eating (in that case, short for “mess hall”) seems weirdly, if mysteriously, derogatory to many people, probably because it implies an untidy or unsanitary scene. But the original meaning of “mess” in English was, in fact, “a serving of food; a meal,” from the Latin “missus” (“a placing”), the past participle of “mittere” (to put, place, send; the same verb gave us “mission”). First appearing in English in the 14th century, “mess” was also used to mean “great quantity” (“mess of fish”) as well as “several kinds of food mixed together” and “mixed food fed to animals,” which led to it meaning “confused situation” and “untidy or chaotic arrangement” (as in “My apartment’s a mess right now”). But the military use of “mess” is the original “meal” sense of the term, no matter what lame jokes are heard in the chow line.

Grocery / Gross

Move your … bananas … to the bagging area.

Dear Word Detective:  I have a college senior trying to tell me that the word “grocery” was derived from the policies of old store selling goods by the “gross” (144 of each). I am skeptical of this description. Can you help? — M. Campbell.

Hmm. Brace yourself. Your college senior is about to step out into the real world, the world of jobs and responsibility where the knowledge gained in those four years will be tested in the crucible of experience. And the probability that the first crucible testing your graduate will be a cashier’s post in the local Food Barn grocery store won’t diminish the value (or, sadly, the cost) of that education one whit.

Ordinarily, I would second your skepticism about that suggested origin of “grocery.” It seems far too simple. But it is, in fact, right on the money.

To begin at the beginning, we have “gross,” which appeared in English in the 14th century as an adjective meaning “thick, bulky, large.” The root of “gross” is the late Latin “grossus” (also meaning “thick or bulky”), but further back than that the trail goes cold. Etymological dictionaries insist that “grossus” is not related to either of two logical suspects: the Latin “crassus” (“bulky”) or the German “gross” (“large”). Since English has many words meaning “huge,” use of “gross” in terms of physical size eventually faded away and “gross” was used to mean either “flagrant, excessive, offensive” (“gross incompetence”) or “complete, total” (“gross income,” “gross national product”). The use of “gross” as a noun to mean “twelve dozen” (144) of something  arose in English in the 15th century, drawn from the French “grosse douzaine” meaning “large dozen.” Interestingly, “gross” in this sense is always singular; we speak of “sixteen gross of ostrich eggs,” not “grosses.”

More than a few of the senses “gross” acquired over the years were unpleasant or uncomplimentary. “Gross” food was coarse, common, not refined, and a “gross” person was one considered dull, tasteless and stupid. “Gross” speech was similarly crude and unrefined (“The vulgar dialect of the city was gross and barbarous.” 1781). But the standalone adjective “gross” meaning “disgusting,” now a perennial item of teen slang, didn’t appear until the late 1950s.

In the 14th century, English adopted the Old French term “grossier” (from the Latin “grossarius,” wholesaler) as “grocer,” meaning a merchant who buys and sells “by the gross,” i.e., in large quantities. The term was first used only for wholesalers, merchants who dealt in literal  tons of spices, fabric, etc. But “grocer” was soon expanded to include retailers who sold any kind of goods that would not be sold in specialty outlets. “Grocery” meant the sort of things sold by a grocer; our modern use of the term “grocery” to mean “grocer’s shop” is a US invention.


Tons ‘O Fun.

Dear Word Detective:  I was amazed to find out yesterday that the word is “motherlode,” and not, as I had always thought, “motherload.” It made sense to me that it was a whole “load” of stuff. Is this a common mistake? Thanks and say hi to the cats. — Rachel.

Cats? What cats? You mean pets? We don’t actually have any pet cats here. We do have some Cross-Species Studies exchange students living with us, for whom we furnish room and board as well as advanced tutoring and sanitation training. I explained all this to the guy from the IRS when he asked about our deductions. He wished us luck, which I took to mean that everything’s cool.

That’s a good question, and yes, it appears that you are far from alone in thinking the usual form of the term is “motherload.” A quick search of Google produces 1,220,000 results for “motherlode,” but 4,290,000 hits for “motherload.” The results may be slightly skewed by puns (e.g., “motherload” in the title of articles about family stress), and there is apparently a popular band called “Motherload,” but I’d say the form “motherlode” is in real danger of eventually being supplanted in popular usage by “motherload.”

If I sound a bit blasé when I say that, it’s because “lode” and “load” were the same word to begin with. They are, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “etymologically identical,” one being merely a “graphic variant,” a slightly different spelling, of the other. That’s not to say that the words are interchangeable; the spelling difference between”lode” and “load” has led to slightly different meanings over the years.
“Lode” and “load” first appeared in Old English, drawn from the same Germanic roots that eventually also produced “to lead” in the sense of “to guide, conduct.” “Load/lode” was also influenced by the separate word “lade,” meaning “to load or burden,” which is now obsolete except in such terms as “bill of lading,” the noun “ladle” and the participle “laden” (“Laden with debt, Larry played Lotto.”).

The original sense of “load/lode” in Old English was “way, route” or “means of transport.” As the forms diverged in meaning in the 13th century, “load” developed in the sense of “that which is carried,” now familiar in everything from the “load” of a truck to the “debt load” that prompted Larry to gamble.

“Lode,” however, developed in the “guide, signal” sense, giving us “lodestar,” a bright star in the sky (usually Polaris) used to navigate ships, and “lodestone,” the naturally magnetic mineral “magnetite,” used in primitive compasses. In the 17th century, “lode” began to be used to mean a rich vein of mineral ore in the earth that, once discovered, would guide miners in their excavations. Starting in the 19th century, an unusually large and rich lode was known as a “motherlode” (“The lode called the Esmeralda, the most prominent and apparently the mother lode of the district, runs with the meridian.” 1863). Beginning in the 1920s, a rich source of anything was figuratively known as a (or “the”) “motherlode” (“The pages of the T.L.S. were the very mother-lode of academic inanity.” 1960).