Thursday, October 13, 2011


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.


  1. A Breaking Bad post!


    You gotta mention the pun. I loved that.

    Did you ever read Ivanhoe? The most gruesome thing about it was how he fell for that awful bore Rowena.

  2. Adrian, yeah, I am hoping for a huge surge in readership by managing to fit Breaking Bad into the cycle.

    As Kathleen will attest, if you can just manage to fit the word hedgehog into your story your readership will spike. I don't know why, but it does. Try it.

    I'm kidding. I don't really care who reads this, although I like to hear from the people who bother to comment.

    I feel a little embarrassed to put in the pun because I didn't actually notice it till you pointed it out. It takes a punster to know one, I guess.

    Ivanhoe? No. Although I remember that my grandmother was quite a fan. I should probably read one before I die. Wasn't Scott a big source of the ideas on chivalry in Tom Sawyer?

    But I do like that Scott was apparently responsible for keeping a lot of Scottish words alive in modern English parlance.

  3. Kathleen,, I should probably look up shudder next. I can see Anatoly Liberman now:

    Quite a few words of the world begin with 'sh' and refer to things that leave you 'sh'aking in your boots.

    Did I mention that my name actually begins with the sound 'sh'?

    Between the shaking and the growling, my name has left me coming and going. Your typical passive aggressive personality.

    Why oh why didn't my parents name me Grainne if they had to stick with the Celtic?

    Grainne Graham is someone you just wouldn't want to mess with. Lured by my quiet first name, people get a false idea. Unfortunately, they are (or were) sadly mistaken.


  4. Seana

    It's a good book but


    like in A Suitable Boy the lead ends up with completely the wrong partner. Which is frustrating after all those pages.

  5. Sorry, my eyes automatically rolled up into the back into the back of my head after the words SPOILER ALERT. Because I haven't read Suitable Boy yet.

    I should say that my grandmother was an interesting character. I've probably mentioned that she was offered a scholarship to Swarthmore, and they came all the way out to Indiana to talk to her parents about it, but her parents wouldn't let her because she would be getting above her brothers.


    On the other hand she never would have met my grandfather in California if she' gone east, so I'm a bit conflicted on the matter.