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Daily grind

Grounds for revolt.

Dear Word Detective:  I was wondering whether you could investigate the origin of the phrase “the daily grind.” I was watching a program called “Secrets of the Castle” in which people in France are recreating a medieval castle. In reference to setting up a water-powered mill to grind flour, one of the English presenters said “This is the end of the daily grind.” Is this correct — that “daily grind” means the chore of grinding grain by hand each day to make bread? — Sarah, Australia.

Hey, that sounds like my kind of show. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages, and I’ve even gotten estimates for a moat around our house. Way too expensive, it turns out. But since our neighbors refuse to wear the nice burlap smocks I made for them, I’ve put my project on hold for the moment anyway. You just can’t get good serfs anymore. Oh well, more mead for me, varlets.

Meanwhile, back at “the daily grind” on that TV show, I’d take that as a bit of a pun rather than a serious explanation of the origin of the term. In the beginning, there was the verb “to grind,” which comes from the Old English “grindan,” meaning “to crush into small pieces, to rub together, to reduce to small particles or powder.” One of the main senses of “to grind” early on was, of course, “to make grain into flour in a mill by crushing between two hard surfaces.” But by the early 17th century it was also being used figuratively to mean “to oppress, to wear down” (“Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” 1764).

“Grind” as a noun followed the same evolutionary path, and by the mid-19th century it was being used metaphorically to describe a dull and difficult task, especially a highly repetitive one (“Weary of the eternal work, of the everlasting grind, of the whirl of London life.” 1866). Thus it wasn’t until 1853 (long after feudalism) that the first use of “daily grind” appeared in print meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “A daily routine of work or activity, especially as considered to be dull or tiresomely repetitious; the usual day’s work or routine, regarded as unremitting and laborious” (“He took refuge in bookshops at lunchtime and wrote long into the night when he was released from his daily grind.” 1983).

By the way, mills, millers and the things they grind have played an important role in human society, and language, pretty much since day one. Here’s a link to a fascinating piece by lexicographer and etymologist Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ( on his visit to a historic California mill and the words derived from or associated with milling.


I have no idea how that cat got in there.

Dear Word Detective: Returning recently from a family holiday in Canada, my daughter asked, anent the man in the booth to whom I was obliged to report the quantity of whisky I had aboard, “Why is it called ‘Customs’?” I checked Oxford online, which says, tersely, that the word arises from a customary payment to a ruler when goods enter his realm. Seems like there might be a bit more to it than that? — Leslie Weatherhead.

Have you noticed that nothing is simple anymore? I pasted your question into LibreOffice (Word for people who hate Word) and it immediately didn’t like your spelling “whisky,” preferring “whiskey.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that “In modern trade usage, Scotch ‘whisky’ and Irish ‘whiskey’ are thus distinguished in spelling; ‘whisky’ is the usual spelling in Britain and ‘whiskey’ that in the U.S.,” but that entry dates back to 1924, so there’s that. Wikipedia declares that “The spelling ‘whiskey’ is common in Ireland and the United States while ‘whisky’ is used in every other whisky producing country in the world.” Whatever, I guess.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, “anent” means “about” or “regarding,” and comes from the Old English “on efen,” meaning “alongside” or “face to face.”

When “custom” first appeared in English around 1200, it meant “the common or usual practice or behavior; habit, fashion” (“It is a custom, more honored in the breach, than in the observance.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603). English adopted “custom” from the Old French “costume” (“custom, practice, style of dress”), which was formed on the Latin “consuescere,” meaning “to become accustomed.” A “customer” (first appearing around1480) was originally someone who habitually shopped in a given store, etc. “Customer” eventually took on the informal meaning of “person one has to deal with,” giving us the “ugly customers” of noir crime films.

Fun fact: as you might have guessed from that reference to the Old French word “costume,” our modern “custom” and “costume” are, spelling aside, actually the same word. “Costume,” with its original meaning of “fashion of a given time” (eventually the more modern “appropriate dress for an occasion”), was imported into English quite a bit later (more than five centuries, in fact) than “custom,” and came to us from Italian rather than French.

Meanwhile, back at “custom,” by the mid-14th centuries the “customary” (i.e., regular, established) rents paid by feudal tenants to their lords were known as “custom.” Commodities imported to or exported from the dominion of the king or similar authority were also subject to standardized “custom” taxes or levies, and eventually the part of the Civil Service in Britain that levied those duties became known as “the Customs.” The term “customs” in the “search your luggage” sense has since come to be used, obviously, all over the world.

Incidentally, “custom” as an adjective meaning “specially made or modified to order is a fairly recent (1830) US invention. The British synonym (now less commonly heard) is “bespoke,” from “bespoken” (ordered or commissioned to be made).


I prefer the term “compact.”

Dear Word Detective:  How do you spell a word that means “very small,” that starts with a “p,” and sounds like “puenee,” or “punie,” or “pwewnee”…? Whatever that word is, I would love to know the correct spelling and its derivation. — Sylvia.

Good question. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that this mystery word is driving you nuts. It can be very difficult to identify a word you’ve heard but never read, especially since so many English spellings are, shall we say, counter-intuitive (“Wednesday,” “Colonel” and “Island,” just for starters). A good thesaurus can help in many cases; just look up the meaning (“very small”) or similar words (“tiny”) and chances are that the culprit will be sitting there in the list of synonyms,  looking guilty.

But now, to actually answer your question, the word you’re probably thinking of is “puny,” an adjective meaning (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak; diminutive, tiny.” It’s a great word because it’s almost always used in a derogatory sense (“Your puny Earth weapons are no match for me, for I am Dwayne, Lord of the Galaxy.”). In modern usage, something “puny” is not merely small, but ridiculously inadequate (“One puny hamburger all day for a growing child?”) or inappropriately small or feeble for a given activity (“Why would you want to watch a big-screen action movie on some puny iPad?”).

“Puny” first appeared in English in the 16th century, adapted from the Old French “puisne” (a compound formed from “puis,” later, plus “né,” born) meaning “younger, born later.” (That “né,” incidentally, is the masculine form of “née,” which is sometimes used to indicate the “birth name” of married women, e.g., “Jackie Kennedy, née Bouvier”). “Puisne” itself, pronounced the same as “puny,” was used in English for several centuries, but survives today only in legal terminology.

“Puny” has undergone some interesting changes over the years. It first appeared as a noun, meaning “a recently admitted student to a school or university,” and from there took on the more general sense of “a less-experienced person; a novice.” Not surprisingly, the word also was used to mean “a subordinate; a person of no significance.”

The adjective form of “puny,” appearing in the late 16th century, originally meant simply  “junior or younger,” but soon took on its modern meaning of “inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak, etc.”, almost always served up with a heaping helping of contempt (“Some puny scribbler invidiously attempted to found upon it a charge of inconsistency.” Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). Of course, it helps that the word itself begins with a “pew” sound, long used as an expression of disgust or contempt (“Pew! what an ungratefulness and unwontness the man is grown unto!” 1941).

If there’s a kinder, gentler use of “puny” out there, it’s to be found in the southern US, where “puny” can mean simply “in poor health; sickly” (“I found your dear Aunt Catherine in a very puny state, not entirely confined, but obliged to rest herself on the bed more or less every day.” 1838).