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shameless pleading

Crunchy-gravel drama

Personally, I stopped watching after whatsisname … that guy … got killed … somehow. I forget, OK?  But everyone’s hair was perfect.

Dear Word Detective: I keep seeing the phrase “crunchy-gravel drama,” applied to TV shows like Downton Abbey and Vanity Fair. I’m strangely attracted to this phrase. It seems to be just loaded with a backstory, but one I can’t seem to learn anything about. Nothing shows up through a Google search about where this phrase comes from, or what it could possibly mean. Please help! — John Roby.

Steady, man. Mustn’t show fear in front of the servants. Stiff upper whatsis, wot wot? You do remember Lord Wetwooly’s words at the Siege of Vindaloo, don’t you? No? Drat, neither do I. But I believe it was something quite inspiring about fear. I had to leave early myself, as I realized that I’d left the kettle on back in Belgravia, but I’m sure the men appreciated it.

I love this question. I had never heard the phrase “crunchy-gravel drama” before, but it’s absolutely perfect for the Downton Abbey “grand house with lots of servants” genre.

“Gravel,” of course, is a mixture of small stones often used as paving for driveways and paths. The English word “gravel,” which first appeared in the 14th century, comes from the Old French “gravele,” a diminutive form of “grave,” meaning “gravel or coarse sand.” A bit further back, “gravel” may be related to our English “grit.” “Gravel” is also used in some technical senses (such as for crystals in the human urinary tract), as well as figuratively for something unpleasant, often in allusion to the Biblical adage from Proverbs 20:17: “Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.”

“Crunchy-gravel drama” is a reference to the fact that the sort of “great house on an estate” where such stories are set, most often in 18th or 19th century Britain, had driveways and forecourts, as well as paths through the grounds of the estate, paved with carefully tended gravel. The problem with gravel as paving is that it shifts and must be constantly and carefully raked by someone to avoid ruts and bare spots, a job delegated at such houses to servants. Most suburban driveways today are, not surprisingly, devoid of servants and paved with asphalt or concrete, and walks are usually made of concrete or flagstone. Thus the relative rarity of gravel driveways (let alone forecourts or walkways) in the experience of many viewers makes the distinctive “crunchy” sound of wheels, shoes or horses’ hooves on gravel one of the more atmospheric auditory signatures of such dramas.

By way of illustration, I offer the following, drawn from a bodice-ripper I found through Google Books entitled, I kid you not, “To Tempt a Rake,” by Cara Eliot (2011): “The carriage wheels crunched over the freshly raked gravel and came to a halt by the entrance portico. Charlotte looked up at the classical columns gleaming a mellow gold hue in the slanting sunlight, and then lowered her gaze to the procession of liveried servants coming to meet their arrival.” (As opposed to, I guess, the servants in swimsuits meeting their departure at the exit portico.)

Despite the “freshly raked gravel” mentioned in that passage (which is how I came across it), I’m fairly certain the “rake” of the title refers not to Charlotte taking up yard maintenance chores, but to a “rakehell,” a 16th century term for a dissolute and promiscuous man (from the metaphor of a scoundrel “raking through hell,” either searching for new outrages to commit or, post facto, atoning for them).

At the moment, Google lists almost 1,800 hits for “crunchy-gravel drama,” the vast majority of which refer to Downton Abbey, and none of which appeared before 2009. So it seems to be a very recent coinage, so far of uncertain origin. But it’s definitely a keeper.

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