My friend and co-worker Scott Bradley asked me yesterday about the origin of the word groceries. I had to admit I wasn’t sure. “It has the word gross in it,” he said. This is true – in the sound. But it’s not spelled that way. What are the odds that it has any connection?

Look at the form of this word, after all. Where does it come from? It’s true that groceries include a series of things you may grow, especially if you’re Ceres – from rice to cores to, well, ices I suppose (Roger that), plus partially eaten cress and eggs. We will overlook the ogre and orgies hiding in this word, and will not try to score some corgis. But where are the etymological hints in this word?

We know the English derivation, to be sure: groceries is the plural of grocery (rarely used as a singular noun except in the attributive – you go to the grocery store but you don’t buy a grocery); grocery comes from grocer. And a grocer is? Aside from someone who is famously bad with apostrophe use, that is (grocer’s apostrophe being a name for an apostrophe used on a plural, e.g., twelve egg’s). I’ll tell you: a person who buys and sells food in bulk. From Old French grossier, from Latin grossarius, from grossus “thick” (and thus “in bulk”). It is that “thick” and “coarse” sense that gross retained into English that has lent itself to the ultimate development of the colloquial sense as in “That’s really gross” – something you might say of a messy spill in a grocery store (and then, of course, there are the grammar grumblers who complain of gross negligence or gross ignorance when spotting some orthographical peccadillo on a grocery store sign – if you’re not sure what I think of the sort of people who would take out a pen and correct someone else’s sign, see “A new way to be a complete loser“).

So, yes, it’s the same gross; the c spelling existed alongside an ss spelling for a long time and finally prevailed (why the c? just because it sounded that way – but remember that it was scribes and law clerks doing it then, not grocers). Grocers have been around a long time – the Worshipful Company of Grocers was founded in 1344. At first they were dealers in spices and other imported goods (or is that spice’s and other imported good’s?), for sale in quantity. Nowadays you can buy quite a lot of things in small or great quantity, of course, but if you really want bulk you don’t deal with a grocer – you go to Costco, and there’s nothing grosser than some of the 144-packs that you can there. Or 288-packs – but those really are two gross for me.

3 responses to “groceries

  1. Have you noticed that a lot of people pronounce the ‘c’ as though it were ‘sh’: “grosheries”?

    • In fact, I had even thought about mentioning that. I often do – I think [groʊʃriz] is a normal Alberta pronunciation. I’d chalk it up to palatal assimilation, as the tongue is moving back from the [s] for the vowel and for the [r] (and if the vowel’s dropped, the influence is even stronger).

  2. Once upon a time and not really that long ago in the UK you went to the greengrocers to buy your ‘greens’ but now you rarely hear the word grocer and greengrocer which is probably due to the advent and our dependency on supermarket chains for our “shopping” – the general term in Britain for groceries. On the highstreet now greengrocers are normally called “Fruit n’ Veg shops”.

    Regarding your mentioning of “corgis”, if you wanted to be hypercorrect… even though ‘corgi’ has been naturalised in English and quite rightly forms an English plural …the Welsh plural of corgi is ‘corgwn’ but of correct that would be pedantic to use the correct Welsh plural in English, although we do retain some foreign plural formations in English ie.
    gâteau – gâteaux
    seraph – seraphim

    To my eyes there’s a split second when ‘corgis’ initially scans as wrong like to English eyes ‘gooses’, ‘elfs’, ‘mouses’, ‘sheeps’, ‘tableaus’, ‘gâteaus’ etc. are blatantly wrong.
    However, there are some English plurals which sometimes just don’t look right eg. ‘menus’, ‘gnus’, ’emus’, ‘ha-has’, ‘yo-yos’, ‘hi-fis’ etc.

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