Like many others last weekend, I watched the season finale of Breaking Bad. (Don't worry, this won't give anything away about the episode.) I caught it a little late, but the one word that leaked out beforehand was 'gruesome'. And I will say that if you are looking for gruesome you will not be disappointed.
But after I got over the shock and horror--no, that's not true, I will never get over the shock and horror--after I tried to return to some semblance of the normal life I formally led, I suddenly realized that gruesome was one of those perplexing '-some' words. When I started exploring 'cumbersome' a few posts back, I learned that -some has the general meaning of having the quality of or full of something. "Has some" might be a better way to describe this ending. But often what it has some of is a bit obscure. And so it is here.
What is 'grue' in this word? Is it some strange twist on 'gore'? Does it mean 'gray' in Old French? In our times, I think we agree on something like "horrible to observe, often involving body parts." But where did it all begin?
Well, I had some hopes that it might have something to do with gruel, but of course it didn't. 'Grue' is an obsolete word meaning 'to shudder'. It comes from the Middle English word gruen. There seems to be little trace of what that came from, but in any case, there is a Dutch/German/Danish and Norse configuration of similar words floating around it.
Although the term languished in English, it was used commonly in Scotland and Northern England for centuries. It took Sir Walter Scott to use it in his historical novels and thus give it back to standard English. Although I do have to wonder what Scott would have made of that Breaking Bad episode. Less gruesome or more gruesome than his own imagination?
Anatoly Liberman also has a thing or two to say:
"Quite a few words in the languages in the world begin with gr- and refer to things threatening or discordant. From Scandanavian, English has grue, the root of gruesome (an adjective popularized by Walter Scott), but Old Engl. gryre(horror) existed long before the emergence of grue-. The epic hero Beowulf fought Grendel, an almost invincible monster. Whatever the origin of the name, it must have been frightening even to pronounce it."
'Gr-', huh? Did I mention that my last name is Graham?
Probably not. I wouldn't want to scare you.