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shameless pleading

Growler

Thash a good doggie.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently overheard a conversation regarding brewing beer and the term “growler” was used to describe a large (half-gallon) glass vessel for carrying beer. Can you shed some light on how this meaning of the word originated? — Bill Lundeberg.

That’s an interesting question. If this were the 19th century, chances are good that most people reading this would know that a “growler” is a large container that is filled, at a bar, with beer which is then taken home (or elsewhere) to be consumed. But the use of “growlers” faded out in the early 20th century (when bar owners decided that they were cutting into their profits), and “growler” slipped into the twilight world of words found largely in historical novels.

But, as Bruce Springsteen put it, maybe everything that dies someday comes back. In January of this year, the New York Times, the leading reporter of hot trends among the petit bourgeois larva of the Big Apple, ran an interesting article (The New Old Way to Tote Your Beer, 01/26/10). It seems that thirty-something customers of the trendy taverns of Park Slope in Brooklyn (if you have to ask, you can’t afford to live there), finding themselves lately burdened with children, have revived the “growler” and now tote their microbrew (or “craft beer”) purchases home, presumably to sip them appreciatively while they (and their sprogs) sit glued to “Brothers & Sisters.”

The growlers used by today’s neo-yuppies are usually ecologically-correct two-quart glass jugs, but back in the 19th century the standard “growler” was a simple steel pail or a can that had originally contained lard or tomatoes. In working-class neighborhoods a common evening ritual involved sending one of the children to the local tavern bearing a “growler,” with instructions to have it filled and bring it home straightaway. This journey was called “rushing the growler” or “working the growler.” Multiple “growlers” were also commonly enjoyed by gangs of street drunks, who became increasingly belligerent as the evening progressed, until even veteran police officers shied from encounters with the “growler mobs.” The institution of the “growler” was, incidentally, considered by some in the late 19th century to be a major social evil, the meth lab of its day.

The earliest use of “growler” in print found so far (by etymologist Barry Popik, who has an entire page devoted to “growler” at barrypopik.com) comes from 1883, and there has been considerable debate as to the origin of the term. The explanation most frequently offered is that “growler” originally referred either to the sound the full pail made being shoved down the bar or, less plausibly, to the sound made by the escaping bubbles in a bucket full of beer. (Personally, I’d say that if your beer seems to be growling at you, it may be time to take a very long nap.) It’s also been suggested that “growler” refers to the cranky (or worse) temperament of someone who has consumed an entire pail of beer.

Researcher Gerald Cohen, on the other hand, has come up with what strikes me as a more likely origin. Noting that an alternate form of “rush the growler” back in the 1800s was “chase the duck,” Cohen suggests that the original metaphor behind such phrases was that of a hunting dog dispatched to find and retrieve a downed fowl. In “chase the duck,” the command to the “fetcher” is obvious. In “rush the growler,” the “growler” is the dog urged to fetch the prey quickly. Cohen’s theory seems entirely plausible, and I’d be willing to bet a bucket of beer that he’s right.

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