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Gruel / Grueling

Second prize is two bowls.

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between “grueling” and “gruel”? One might describe eating gruel as boring, insufficiently nourishing, or even nauseating — but grueling, not so much, unless gruel has changed since when I was an orphan. — Patrick Bowman.

Hmm. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I wasn’t aware that being an orphan was something one outgrows. In any case, it’s funny you should mention gruel. I’ve noticed that a lot of the upscale decorating salons and pet grooming parlors in the strip malls around here have gone belly-up lately due to the economy, and have been replaced, if at all, by payday lenders and dollar stores. So I think the time is right to open a chain of low-cost eateries serving delicious, nutritious gruel, perhaps with a crust of bread for big spenders. The ad slogans write themselves (e.g., “Good buy? Gruel World!”), and the main ingredient is, after all, pretty near free. I think fifty-cent bowls and free wi-fi would be a hit.

The funny thing about gruel (ok, maybe not funny, but interesting) is that, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it doesn’t really sound that bad: “A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occasionally some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.” Onions in oatmeal? But apparently chopped meat is also often an ingredient in gruel, so chacon a son gout, as they say in France. The word “gruel,” which first showed up in English in the 14th century, does in fact come from Old French, which formed it on roots meaning “grain which has been ground.”

While gruel as defined by the dictionary doesn’t sound too bad, in practice it was often thin, watery and bland, well suited for the sick because it was easily digestible, but hardly anyone’s favorite food. It was also a staple item on the menu of prisons, asylums and orphanages, so the public perception of gruel has never been positive. Thus “gruel” has long been used in a figurative sense to mean “something (especially an argument, proposal or excuse) that lacks substance” (“Clark’s jobs plan thin gruel to Nanaimo’s down and out,” Globe and Mail, 9/22/11).

With gruel being widely considered unpleasant medicine at best, it’s not surprising that “to be given one’s gruel” and similar phrases, meaning literally “to take one’s medicine,” came to mean “to receive one’s punishment” or even “to get killed” in the late 18th century (“He gathered … that they expressed great indignation against some individual. ‘He shall have his gruel,’ said one,” Sir Walter Scott, 1815). This sense of “getting one’s gruel” as a punishment produced, in the early 19th century, the verb “to gruel,” which meant “to punish” and specifically “to exhaust or disable.” This verb “to gruel,” in turn, produced, in the mid-18th century, the adjective “grueling,” meaning “exhausting” or “punishing” in the sense of requiring extreme exertion (“After a grueling finish, Magdalen just struggled home by two feet amidst great excitement,” 1891). And it took until the 1970s, but there’s now even an adverbial member of the family (“This gruelingly competitive industry,” Financial Times, 1987).

All in all, the evolution of “gruel” into “grueling” hasn’t been entirely fair to a mild broth designed to comfort the tummies of invalids.


You go first.

Dear Word Detective: In some recent reading of several different 19th century authors, I’m finding that the term “enthusiast” appears to mean something different in these texts than in our current usage. Several times, it’s applied in description of an individual in a tone that is scathing, contemptuous, and downright nasty. Or, it’s used by a character trying to establish his bona fides by claiming “I’m not an enthusiast by any means,” for example. Can you shed any light on this difference? How did a term that today generally conveys cheerful energy and motivation evolve from one that seems to imply a moral or intellectual weakness? — Chris, Kansas City.

Well, now here’s an appropriate question for me to answer. I just happen to be known as “Mister Enthusiasm” among my friends and family, because I’m always up for tackling a task, embarking on a spontaneous adventure, or just spinning the Great Roulette Wheel of Life first thing every morning. Just kidding. My enthusiasm quotient has been at low ebb since I was twelve, when I discovered Mister Ed couldn’t really talk. A world devoid of talking animals cannot dazzle me with its tawdry pageant, so I take the Homer Simpson approach to life: “Why go out? We’ll just end up back here.”

It would seem that you have a sharp eye (or ear) for overtones. “Enthusiast” and its parent “enthusiasm” have indeed markedly changed their connotations since “enthusiasm” first appeared in English in the early 17th century. The root of “enthusiasm” was the Greek “entheos,” which meant literally “possessed by a god.” (That “theos” is also found in “theology” and related English words.) This produced the Greek words “enthousiasmos” (“divine inspiration”) and “enthousiazein” (“to be inspired or possessed by religious fervor”). “Enthusiast,” “enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic” all arrived in English with these religious overtones.

In the Puritan England of the day, however, high-octane religious fervor was frowned upon, and “enthusiast” took on a definite connotation of disapproval (“One who erroneously believes himself to be the recipient of special divine communications; in wider sense, one who holds extravagant and visionary religious opinions, or is characterized by ill-regulated fervor of religious emotion,” Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) and it was applied to people we would probably call “zealots” or “fanatics” today. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, noted that “It is the believing those to be Miracles which are not, that constitutes an Enthusiast” (1746).

By the mid-18th century, however, the religious sense was fading, and “enthusiast” was being used in a more neutral secular sense to mean someone who was full of “enthusiasm” for a cause, a person, a principle, etc., “enthusiasm” itself having come to mean “passionate eagerness or interest” in something, usually based in a strong belief in its merits (“Bob’s enthusiasm for saving money with DIY roof repairs overcame his fear of heights, but not his balance problems”). This “big fan of” or “eager to get started” sense of “enthusiast” is the positive sense we use today. The OED does note, however, that when any of this family of words are used in a disparaging or sarcastic sense, it’s almost always “enthusiast” (“Since it was a weekend, Bob discovered that the ER was already full of DIY enthusiasts”).

Speaking of the “enthusiast” family, the “troubled teen” of the lot is definitely the verb “to enthuse,” which means either “to make enthusiastic” or “to become enthusiastic.” Labeled “an ignorant back-formation of enthusiasm” by the OED, “enthuse” appeared in the early 19th century and didn’t raise any hackles among usage mavens until 1870. Since then it has been regularly denounced, but also regularly used by such notable writers as Robert Frost, Wilfred Owen, and Julian Huxley, as well as many others who found it useful.

Knock for a loop / knock someone’s socks off

Up in the air, Junior Birdmen.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” originate and what exactly does it mean? — Angie.

Dear Word Detective: I just used “threw me for a loop” in an intertubes comment, then wondered if it was “through me for a loop” or something else. The internet says I wrote it correctly, but took a pass on where it’s from (my search was brief). You and your readers have used the phrase, but you don’t seem to have addressed its origins. Where does (or might) the phrase come from? — TB.

Hey kids, it’s twofer! That’s right, two questions answered (we hope) in one column. And that’s just the beginning. In the coming months, we’ll be adding more and more questions to every column, until they’re stacked up like incoming flights over LaGuardia. We’re just doing our part to fight the depress…. I mean recession, by conserving pixels or something. In fact, today only, we’ll even throw in the origin of “twofer,” which originally, back in the 1890s, meant two cheap cigars sold for the price of one decent one (“two for one”).

“Socks” are, of course, short stockings covering the foot and reaching usually to the ankle, though knee-socks (which really just cover the calf) are also popular. It sounds like a lame joke, but the root of “sock” is simply the Latin “soccus,” which meant a kind of low, soft slipper (which is what “sock” meant when it first appeared in print in Old English). Our modern sense of “sock” as a stocking usually worn under shoes arose in the 14th century.

The phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” first appeared in the mid-19th century with the meaning “to beat thoroughly; to vanquish,” especially in a fistfight, implying violence so extreme that the loser would not only have his shoes knocked off, but his socks as well. The phrase was soon adapted to mean simply “decisively defeat” in non-violent contexts, such as an election, and today it is also used in the more positive sense of “to amaze, delight or strongly impress” (“Bob’s harmonica rendition of the Goldberg Variations really knocked the judges’ socks off”).

To be “thrown for a loop” or “knocked for a loop” refers to being bewildered, dazzled, disoriented and shocked by some event (“AT&T and T-Mobile were thrown for a loop last week when the Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s planned acquisition of T-Mobile,” CNET, 9/5/11). The phrase first appeared in print in the 1920s, and comes from what the Oxford English Dictionary terms “a centrifugal railway,” but which is, no doubt, better known as a “roller coaster.” The “loop” on roller coaster runs is the point where the coaster arcs upward through a complete circle, leaving passengers upside down at its apex. The term was initially used in the literal roller coaster sense and then to describe aerobatic maneuvers by pilots “looping the loop,” and finally in boxing to mean a powerful punch that downed an opponent, before acquiring its modern “OMG!” usage.

By way of an interesting footnote to “knocked for a loop,” many people have pointed out that the similar phrase “head over heels,” meaning to be figuratively turned upside down by something (usually love) actually makes no sense. Most of us, after all, spend all day with our heads above (“over”) our heels. In fact, the phrase, when it first appeared in the mid-14th century, took the far more logical form “heels over head,” and it was only an inept author’s reversal of it to “head over heels” in 1771 that gave us the modern form. It also didn’t help that Davy Crockett (of coonskin cap fame) used the mangled “head over heels” form (“I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl”) in his 1834 autobiography.