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Heard it through the grapevine

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.

Daily grind

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 ( on his visit to a historic California mill and the words derived from or associated with milling.


I have no idea how that cat got in there.

Dear Word Detective: Returning recently from a family holiday in Canada, my daughter asked, anent the man in the booth to whom I was obliged to report the quantity of whisky I had aboard, “Why is it called ‘Customs’?” I checked Oxford online, which says, tersely, that the word arises from a customary payment to a ruler when goods enter his realm. Seems like there might be a bit more to it than that? — Leslie Weatherhead.

Have you noticed that nothing is simple anymore? I pasted your question into LibreOffice (Word for people who hate Word) and it immediately didn’t like your spelling “whisky,” preferring “whiskey.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that “In modern trade usage, Scotch ‘whisky’ and Irish ‘whiskey’ are thus distinguished in spelling; ‘whisky’ is the usual spelling in Britain and ‘whiskey’ that in the U.S.,” but that entry dates back to 1924, so there’s that. Wikipedia declares that “The spelling ‘whiskey’ is common in Ireland and the United States while ‘whisky’ is used in every other whisky producing country in the world.” Whatever, I guess.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, “anent” means “about” or “regarding,” and comes from the Old English “on efen,” meaning “alongside” or “face to face.”

When “custom” first appeared in English around 1200, it meant “the common or usual practice or behavior; habit, fashion” (“It is a custom, more honored in the breach, than in the observance.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603). English adopted “custom” from the Old French “costume” (“custom, practice, style of dress”), which was formed on the Latin “consuescere,” meaning “to become accustomed.” A “customer” (first appearing around1480) was originally someone who habitually shopped in a given store, etc. “Customer” eventually took on the informal meaning of “person one has to deal with,” giving us the “ugly customers” of noir crime films.

Fun fact: as you might have guessed from that reference to the Old French word “costume,” our modern “custom” and “costume” are, spelling aside, actually the same word. “Costume,” with its original meaning of “fashion of a given time” (eventually the more modern “appropriate dress for an occasion”), was imported into English quite a bit later (more than five centuries, in fact) than “custom,” and came to us from Italian rather than French.

Meanwhile, back at “custom,” by the mid-14th centuries the “customary” (i.e., regular, established) rents paid by feudal tenants to their lords were known as “custom.” Commodities imported to or exported from the dominion of the king or similar authority were also subject to standardized “custom” taxes or levies, and eventually the part of the Civil Service in Britain that levied those duties became known as “the Customs.” The term “customs” in the “search your luggage” sense has since come to be used, obviously, all over the world.

Incidentally, “custom” as an adjective meaning “specially made or modified to order is a fairly recent (1830) US invention. The British synonym (now less commonly heard) is “bespoke,” from “bespoken” (ordered or commissioned to be made).