Curiouser and curiouser.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the “grate” that we’re supposed to be “full” of in “grateful”?  I can understand being full of care, full of hope, etc., but what is this “grate”? — Al Pratt, Tempe, AZ.

That’s a good question.  I remember as a kid wondering the same thing, and deciding that since whatever you were supposed to be “grateful” for was probably pretty “great,” there had probably simply been a spelling mistake made at some point way back when.  The alternative seemed to be that “grateful” had something to do with an actual “grate” of the sort one finds atop a barbecue.  As big a fan of hot dogs as I was at the time, that didn’t seem very likely.

On one level, the explanation for “grateful,” meaning “thankful,” is pretty simple.  First appearing in English in the 16th century, “grateful” is based on the now obsolete adjective “grate,” which meant “pleasing, agreeable” as well as “thankful.”  This “grate,” incidentally, came from the Latin word “gratus,” also meaning both “pleasing” and “thankful,” and the source of such English words as “gratitude,” “congratulations” and “gratuity.”  “Grate” was a handy little word, but it disappeared as a stand-alone adjective back in the 16th century.  So what we have in the adjective “grateful” is simply the connotation of being “full of” (or, more accurately, “characterized by”) “grate,” or thankfulness, in the same way that something “beautiful” is chock full of beauty, a “regretful” person is plagued by regrets, and so on.

On the other hand, “grateful” is a strange little word, and a true anomaly in modern English in the way it was formed.  The suffix “ful” appeared in Old English (as “full”) and was appended to nouns to create an adjective meaning “full of,” “having” or “characterized by.”  So far so good.  In the examples I gave above, “beauty” is a noun, “beautiful” an adjective, and “regret” a noun, “regretful” an adjective formed from it.   But “grate” was not a noun.  “Grate” was an adjective, which makes “grateful” an adjective formed from an adjective, which is not how things are normally done in English.  The etymologist Ernest Weekley, in fact, called “grateful” “a most unusual formation.”  There were a few other such formations in English, among them “direful” (terrible) and “fierceful” (ferocious or savage), but none are as common in English today as the ubiquitous “grateful.”

All of this is, of course, just more evidence that English (or any language) is a quirky, juryrigged patchwork, not a kit where the pieces fit neatly together, and even the most common words often have strange stories.  Why, for instance, do we always offer “thanks,” not a single “thank”?  It’s because the singular form of the noun “thank” (which comes from the same root as “think” and first appeared in English meaning simply “thought”) is now obsolete.  Why ask why?  Stuff happens.  Maybe just one “thank” was considered stingy.  But “thankful” was formed when the singular “thank,” by then meaning “favorable thought, good will,” was still alive and well.  All in all, I’m thankful we don’t say “thanksful.”

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