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Crunchy-gravel drama

Personally, I stopped watching after whatsisname … that guy … got killed … somehow. I forget, OK?  But everyone’s hair was perfect.

Dear Word Detective: I keep seeing the phrase “crunchy-gravel drama,” applied to TV shows like Downton Abbey and Vanity Fair. I’m strangely attracted to this phrase. It seems to be just loaded with a backstory, but one I can’t seem to learn anything about. Nothing shows up through a Google search about where this phrase comes from, or what it could possibly mean. Please help! — John Roby.

Steady, man. Mustn’t show fear in front of the servants. Stiff upper whatsis, wot wot? You do remember Lord Wetwooly’s words at the Siege of Vindaloo, don’t you? No? Drat, neither do I. But I believe it was something quite inspiring about fear. I had to leave early myself, as I realized that I’d left the kettle on back in Belgravia, but I’m sure the men appreciated it.

I love this question. I had never heard the phrase “crunchy-gravel drama” before, but it’s absolutely perfect for the Downton Abbey “grand house with lots of servants” genre.

“Gravel,” of course, is a mixture of small stones often used as paving for driveways and paths. The English word “gravel,” which first appeared in the 14th century, comes from the Old French “gravele,” a diminutive form of “grave,” meaning “gravel or coarse sand.” A bit further back, “gravel” may be related to our English “grit.” “Gravel” is also used in some technical senses (such as for crystals in the human urinary tract), as well as figuratively for something unpleasant, often in allusion to the Biblical adage from Proverbs 20:17: “Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.”

“Crunchy-gravel drama” is a reference to the fact that the sort of “great house on an estate” where such stories are set, most often in 18th or 19th century Britain, had driveways and forecourts, as well as paths through the grounds of the estate, paved with carefully tended gravel. The problem with gravel as paving is that it shifts and must be constantly and carefully raked by someone to avoid ruts and bare spots, a job delegated at such houses to servants. Most suburban driveways today are, not surprisingly, devoid of servants and paved with asphalt or concrete, and walks are usually made of concrete or flagstone. Thus the relative rarity of gravel driveways (let alone forecourts or walkways) in the experience of many viewers makes the distinctive “crunchy” sound of wheels, shoes or horses’ hooves on gravel one of the more atmospheric auditory signatures of such dramas.

By way of illustration, I offer the following, drawn from a bodice-ripper I found through Google Books entitled, I kid you not, “To Tempt a Rake,” by Cara Eliot (2011): “The carriage wheels crunched over the freshly raked gravel and came to a halt by the entrance portico. Charlotte looked up at the classical columns gleaming a mellow gold hue in the slanting sunlight, and then lowered her gaze to the procession of liveried servants coming to meet their arrival.” (As opposed to, I guess, the servants in swimsuits meeting their departure at the exit portico.)

Despite the “freshly raked gravel” mentioned in that passage (which is how I came across it), I’m fairly certain the “rake” of the title refers not to Charlotte taking up yard maintenance chores, but to a “rakehell,” a 16th century term for a dissolute and promiscuous man (from the metaphor of a scoundrel “raking through hell,” either searching for new outrages to commit or, post facto, atoning for them).

At the moment, Google lists almost 1,800 hits for “crunchy-gravel drama,” the vast majority of which refer to Downton Abbey, and none of which appeared before 2009. So it seems to be a very recent coinage, so far of uncertain origin. But it’s definitely a keeper.


 Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Word Detective: I read an article the other day on a conspiracy theory where the author argued that, in the particular situation he was writing about, it wasn’t a conspiracy because “by definition conspiracies are hidden” and this particular situation was not hidden or secret because it had been published in various places. For some reason this struck me as incorrect, so I got out the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) and looked up the word “conspiracy.” I couldn’t find any “hidden” or “secret” component in either of the dictionaries’ definitions of the word and so felt that I was right. However, I subsequently found that the word “conspire” does have “secret” in the definition (in AHD and OED) and so I thought maybe I could be wrong even though it is a different word. Does a conspiracy (by definition) have to be hidden or secret? — Christopher Tomasulo.

That’s a fascinating question for all sorts of reasons. It’s odd that the definitions of “conspiracy” in those dictionaries wouldn’t mention secrecy, while the entries for “conspire” do. It’s like having two cake recipes, only one of which mentions flour. It’s hard enough to cook up a decent nefarious plot these days without getting mixed signals from major reference works. Then again, the whole concept of “secrecy” seems to be headed for extinction in the age of nano-drones the size of insects. That old “fly on the wall” trope (“I had been … wondering what it could all be about and wishing I could be a fly on the wall to hear them,” Nancy Mitford, 1949) is now real and comes armed with a high-speed data link to the NSA.

A “conspiracy” is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary (8th edition) as “An agreement by two or more persons to commit an unlawful act, coupled with an intent to achieve the agreement’s objective, and (in most states) action or conduct that furthers the agreement.” A “conspiracy” is also, as the OED says, “The action of conspiring; combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose,” so the word means both “the action” of conspiring and “the plan” that results. So far, no mention of “secrecy.” The OED (and the AHD and Merriam-Webster Online), however, invoke secrecy in their definitions of the underlying verb “to conspire.” The OED uses the term “privily,” meaning “privately or secretly” (“To combine privily for an evil or unlawful purpose; to agree together to do something criminal, illegal, or reprehensible”). The word “conspire” itself first appeared in English in the 14th century and comes from the Latin “conspirare” meaning “to be in agreement; to ally” (literally “to breathe together”). The noun “conspiracy” appeared later that century, based on the Latin “conspirationem,” the act of conspiring.

Incidentally, the fact that you have no friends to play with doesn’t mean you can’t cook up a really awesome conspiracy, kids. Since the late 14th century, “conspire” has also been used in a looser sense to mean “a single person secretly plotting to do something bad and/or illegal.” This means you can skip the part where your little Yoda action figure agrees with you in that squeaky voice.

So, must a conspiracy be secret to count as a conspiracy? I think so, because the action of forming the conspiracy (i.e., “conspiring”) is pretty universally defined as a process characterized by secrecy. Secrecy is what separates a conspiracy from just another boring business plan or “mission statement.” I think it’s also significant that the common synonyms of “conspire,” namely “to collude” and “to plot,” also are usually defined as requiring secrecy. Maybe the “public conspiracy” at issue in what you read was more of a needle in the modern haystack of information overload than a genuine closely-guarded secret.

Lastly, a fun fact about “plot” as a noun meaning “secret scheme.” It’s the same “plot” we use to mean “small parcel of land.” It was used to mean “map,” then “building plan,” then figuratively for the “plan” of a novel, play, etc., and eventually for a “secret plan” by nogoodniks.


I like the one with the master bedroom in the basement.

Dear Word Detective: My friend and I were wondering where the phrase “pass the mantle” comes from. We’ve researched and the closest fit we can get is that it refers to an Indian’s feathered mantle. Is this passed from father to son and thus the origin of the phrase? — Paul Forman, UK.

That’s a fascinating question, so I’m counting on all you folks to be fascinated by the answer. Meanwhile, am I the only one around here who immediately thought of the HGTV show “House Hunters” when the word “mantel” popped up? Yeah, I know it’s a total scripted fake, and those people have already bought one of the houses. But, if I drank, it would make for an awesome drinking game. I’d belt one back whenever the “hunters” said “granite countertop” or “I’m creeped out by that carpet” or “en suite” or “Our dog Sammy would love that yard” or “I hate that mantel.” They always “hate the mantel,” which makes me wonder about the writers’ childhoods. I’m thinking it has something to do with Santa Claus.

You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraph I’ve spelled the word “mantel” in referring to the frame and ledge surrounding many fireplaces, while your question, quite properly, spells the word “mantle.” They’re actually the same word, but the spelling “mantel” in regard to fireplaces  became differentiated from “mantle” in the 14th century and is now standard.

The root of our modern English “mantle,” which first appeared in Old English (as “mentel”) is the Latin “mantellum,” meaning “cloak.” In English, “mantle” initially meant simply “a loose, sleeveless cloak” or “protective blanket,” and described a variety of garments, mostly outerwear, worn by all classes of people. The heavy, often plaid, blanket worn as a kind of shawl in traditional Scottish and Irish dress, for instance, is called a “mantle” or “Irish mantle” (“To keep her shoulders from cold, she comonly wore a course Irish mantle,” 1627). Eventually “mantles”  of certain colors or ornate designs came to be adopted as a symbol of power or high office.

When European explorers encountered American Indians, they noticed that many tribes used softened animal skins or furs as a similar sort of robe for warmth (and as bedding), so these became known as “mantles” as well (“They … first appeared in two bodies on a neighbouring hill; having there dismounted, and taken off their fur mantles, they advanced naked to the charge,” 1839). Decorative “mantles” also often played a role in various Indian ceremonies.

The use of specialized “mantles” in Europe as symbols of office, both civil and ecclesiastical, led to the figurative use of “mantle” to mean “duty or position of office, responsibility, authority or leadership,” frequently in the sense of an office or position in a certain field being transferred to another person. This sense tended, at first, to be used largely in “literary” or “high culture” contexts (“The sacred mantle which descended from Shakespeare to Milton,” 1789), but today is often employed in more prosaic senses (“My son will now assume the mantle of the breadwinner,” 1977). So while “mantles” in the general sense of “blanket worn as a garment” was  applied to American Indian garb by Europeans, the figurative use of “mantle” to mean “position of authority” is European in origin.

Meanwhile, the word “mantle” had developed a variety of other uses, all involving the general sense of a layer or shield “surrounding” something. The mesh covering of a gas or candle flame, which gives off light when heated, is called a mantle, as are various bits of animal organs, parts of the plumage of birds, and even an bloom of algae on a pond. The layer of the earth between the core and the crust, composed of hot rocks, is called “the mantle.” And “mantle” has also been used, since the 15th century, to mean any sort of temporary protective shelter, such as one constructed by soldiers in the field.

It was this sense of “protective support” that produced, in the 14th century, the spelling variant “mantel,” originally meaning “a piece of wood or stone supporting the wall above a fireplace,” and now referring to the entire framework, often of ornate stone or wood, surrounding a fireplace.