Saturday, October 15, 2011


Sand marathon in the Sahara Desert
In the last post I discovered somewhat to my disappointment that 'gruesome' and 'gruel' have no real kinship. Gruel, which is a watery porridge made from the meal or paste of some grain or bean, has nothing to do with shuddering but something to do with grinding. It is a bit more related to 'grain' and 'grit'. The speculative protoindoeuropean root is *ghreu--"to rub, grind". Okay, fair enough. But then, what about grueling? Is this related? I now see that it probably is--a grueling race is probably also a grinding one. Let's find out.

Grueling in our modern parlance means physically or  mentally demanding to the point of exhaustion. And it does relate to gruel. Hooray! But surprisingly, grueling is slang.  It comes from an idiom, 'to get one's gruel ', ie, to get one's punishment, or more brutally, to die. As Anatoly Liberman points out in his book Word Origins and How We Know Them, Dickens almost certainly knew the expression, which is why Oliver Twist's "Please sir, I want some more," rings doubly poignantly. What Oliver wants is simply a little more gruel.

Somehow through my mom's side of the family we got to know the morning food known as grits. It seems that somehow this passed into our knowledge rather late in our family life, because as a child it was all Quaker Oats and Malto Meal when it came to hot cereals. Grits are a Southern dish, so this probably came through my uncle's side. In any case, we all enjoyed it when we had a Christmas or holiday breakfast of grits, scrapple, and fried green tomatoes. But grits and gruel are closely related, all through the fine crushing power of a mill, and not at all gruesome, when you get right down to it.



  1. The Portuguese grudar means to stick or to glue. I see no obvious relation to grusome, but one never knows.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Interesting, although I suspect Portuguese etymology may be somewhat beyond me.

  3. Boo?

    I am sensing that this is going to be a tough time for you between BB seasons, so I'll overlook that.


  4. antother interesting post. Especially like the Anatoly Liberman insight re: Dickens' double meaning, makes perfect sense.

  5. Thanks, Sean. I'm thinking that the saying 'get one's gruel' could be updated to 'get yo gruel on!', although I have to admit that even I don't know exactly what it means.

  6. Glad to know all this about grits and gruel. (And a little while back I watched Oliver, so his gruel and his grueling life experience are fresh as morning grits in my mind.)

  7. I watched a YouTube clip from Oliver when I wrote up this post. Clever lyrics. I'd forgotten.

    It's morning, so all this talk of grits and gruel is making me hungry!