Tuesday 8 June 2010

The Grosser Grocer

Grocers are gross, and there are one hundred and forty-four of them.

It all comes, of course, from the French word gros meaning large. A grocer buys his goods in bulk or en gros. 144 is a dozen dozens or, if you're a medieval Frenchman*, a grosse douzaine. In English the word shifted from big to thick and thence to coarse until it came to mean plain damned rude. Thus in Hamlet Gertrude says of the expired Ophelia:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:

Damn those liberal shepherds with their voting reform and their dirty names for flowers. (For those filthy-minded readers who were wondering, dead men's fingers are Orchis Mascula which were also called dogstones (Latin testiculus canis), dog's cods, cullions or fool's ballocks. See the bottom left of the illustration that I have so thoughtfully provided.)
All of which is a long way round of saying that gross already meant rude in Shakespeare's day. However, the modern sense of gross as a slang exclamation equivalent to yuk may simply be a shortening of the intensifier. Gross, or large, incompetence leads to gross stupidity, gross misconduct and then gets its second word chopped off.
If you are completely absorbed in something, you are engrossed. And a country that produces nothing other than gerontophile pornography has a Gross National Product.
Finally, by means of Admiral Vernon, gross is the ultimate origin of groggy, but I have explained that elsewhere.
*Are you?


  1. what about "gross" as opposed to "net"? I suppose that has something to do with "gross" meaning "total", "complete" - an extension of the sense of "large". Actually, why "net"? Does it have anything to do with nets?

  2. Curious Georgina8 June 2010 at 13:17

    In reference to the long purples, is that where the phrase "the dog's bollocks" comes from?

  3. Anon,
    Gross as opposed to net is simply large or complete. Net is related to neat and comes from Old French net (pure, bright) because it's what remains after the chaff has been removed. That comes from Latin nitidus (trim beautiful) from nitere (to shine) from Proto Indo European *nei (to shine).
    Curious Georgina,
    There was a fad in the 1920s for the possessions of animals: the cat's pyjamas, the cat's whiskers etc, which were all variants on the bee's knees, where the honey is. However, the first recorded use of the phrase, in 1949, was in reference to a colon followed by a dash :-, which looks vaguely obscene.
    A colon followed by a dash is also a symptom of diarrhoea.