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shameless pleading

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.

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