Grocery / Gross

Move your … bananas … to the bagging area.

Dear Word Detective:  I have a college senior trying to tell me that the word “grocery” was derived from the policies of old store selling goods by the “gross” (144 of each). I am skeptical of this description. Can you help? — M. Campbell.

Hmm. Brace yourself. Your college senior is about to step out into the real world, the world of jobs and responsibility where the knowledge gained in those four years will be tested in the crucible of experience. And the probability that the first crucible testing your graduate will be a cashier’s post in the local Food Barn grocery store won’t diminish the value (or, sadly, the cost) of that education one whit.

Ordinarily, I would second your skepticism about that suggested origin of “grocery.” It seems far too simple. But it is, in fact, right on the money.

To begin at the beginning, we have “gross,” which appeared in English in the 14th century as an adjective meaning “thick, bulky, large.” The root of “gross” is the late Latin “grossus” (also meaning “thick or bulky”), but further back than that the trail goes cold. Etymological dictionaries insist that “grossus” is not related to either of two logical suspects: the Latin “crassus” (“bulky”) or the German “gross” (“large”). Since English has many words meaning “huge,” use of “gross” in terms of physical size eventually faded away and “gross” was used to mean either “flagrant, excessive, offensive” (“gross incompetence”) or “complete, total” (“gross income,” “gross national product”). The use of “gross” as a noun to mean “twelve dozen” (144) of something  arose in English in the 15th century, drawn from the French “grosse douzaine” meaning “large dozen.” Interestingly, “gross” in this sense is always singular; we speak of “sixteen gross of ostrich eggs,” not “grosses.”

More than a few of the senses “gross” acquired over the years were unpleasant or uncomplimentary. “Gross” food was coarse, common, not refined, and a “gross” person was one considered dull, tasteless and stupid. “Gross” speech was similarly crude and unrefined (“The vulgar dialect of the city was gross and barbarous.” 1781). But the standalone adjective “gross” meaning “disgusting,” now a perennial item of teen slang, didn’t appear until the late 1950s.

In the 14th century, English adopted the Old French term “grossier” (from the Latin “grossarius,” wholesaler) as “grocer,” meaning a merchant who buys and sells “by the gross,” i.e., in large quantities. The term was first used only for wholesalers, merchants who dealt in literal  tons of spices, fabric, etc. But “grocer” was soon expanded to include retailers who sold any kind of goods that would not be sold in specialty outlets. “Grocery” meant the sort of things sold by a grocer; our modern use of the term “grocery” to mean “grocer’s shop” is a US invention.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page