Gross: Behind the Word

The word gross has long been a derogatory term for many English speakers. Often used in informal discourse to express distaste, the word might seem to be highly infused into popular culture. But as common as gross may be, its use is by no means a recent development. The word has been used for hundreds of years, and has gradually changed and added to its meanings. The transformations that gross has undergone throughout the centuries have intensified its semantic effect as a pejorative word.

Gross originated as a word borrowed from the French in the 15th century, which in turn was borrowed from the Latin grossus meaning ‘thick.’ As the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, the Latin word was used “frequently in the Vulgate,” suggesting that the word itself was considered coarse and unsophisticated. Perhaps its perpetuation as a word of disparaging connotation arose from its already “lowly” status; the word has a lifelong association with inferiority and commonality in the perspective of its users. It is important to note that while the evolution of gross does follow a definite semantic pattern, one meaning does not necessarily yield to another; the word often had coexisting definitions that were used in equal frequency, and the overlapping dates of their invention and use will show this gradual, nonlinear change.

According to the OED , the earliest written form of the word gross “with reference to texture or quality; coarse” appeared in the beginning of the 16th century. It is first defined as ‘consisting of comparatively large parts or particles,’ implying a physical coarseness. The dictionary gives the example of Berners’ use of the word in the phrase “course grose clothe.” This definition seems to have stuck as the central use of gross, as Johnson listed ‘thick; bulky’ as the primary definition in the 1773 Fourth Edition of his Dictionary of the English Language. But the definition underwent pejoration almost at once, when gross became coarseness not only in physicality, but also in intellectual and social status. In the 16th and 17th century, the definition of gross as ‘lacking in delicacy of perception; dull, stupid’ became quite prolific. Johnson dedicates several definitions to this intellectual inferiority, such as ‘intellectually coarse; palpable; impure; unrefined,’ ‘inelegant,’ and ‘stupid, dull.’ Shakespeare uses gross in this connotation more than any other; out of 20 separate uses of the word collected at random throughout his plays, the ‘stupid, dull’ gross occurred eight times. For example, he says in Act 2, Scene 5 of As You Like It, “Here shall he see/Gross fools as he” (Works).

Fittingly, it was Shakespeare who led gross to an even more derogatory semantic existence. According to the OED, he used gross in 1588 to mean ‘extremely coarse in behaviour or morals; brutally lacking in refinement or decency’ when referring to habits, language, and pleasures. In Love’s Labours Lost, he says, “The grosser manner of these worlds delights, He throwes upon the grosse worlds baser slaves” (I.i.29). The use of gross in this way was a very important development; it eventually led to the word as it is presently used in the 21st century. Johnson recognized this development as well, as he noted the second most common definition of gross as ‘shameful; unseemly ‘ in 1773. The definition rose in popularity over the centuries; this use of the word gross was one of the few that had not yet dwindled to obsoleteness by the 19th century; by then, the definitions of physical and, to a lesser extent, intellectual coarseness were not as prolific as they once had been (Oxford). Similarly, out of a survey of the word in 23 instances of Victorian writing, the word was used to mean ‘shameful’16 times (Willett).

But gross seems to be mutating again, becoming even more pejorative even though the OED has not yet classified this change. In the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, published in 2002, gross has adopted a slightly different meaning, one that is not differentiated in much of the earlier English language. This dictionary defines gross not only as ‘glaringly noticeable usually because of inexcusable badness or objectionableness’ and ‘gravely deficient in civility or decency,’ akin to the OED’s ‘extremely coarse in behavior or morals’, but also as a slang term meaning ‘inspiring disgust or distaste.’ While the distinction may not seem to be much, none of the earlier definitions, such as those in the OED, could distinguish between “gross indecency” and “yuck, that rotting fish is gross!” This development seems to be relatively recent, and especially prolific in spoken speech. From the Collins Cobuild Collocations Sampler, 23 examples were taken of gross used in transcribed speech. More than any other definition, gross as ‘obscene or vulgar’ was used eight times, one of the most common informal uses of the word.

Perhaps the greatest testimonial to the word’s change would be the comparison of passages in the Bible between the King James Version, published in 1638, and the Revised Standard Version, published in 1952. There are four instances of gross in the King James Version: in Matthew 13 and Acts 28, the author describes the hearts of sinners as being “waxed gross,” ignorant of the glory of their God; in Isaiah 60 and Jeremiah 13, a “gross darkness shall cover the earth,” gross meaning large and vast. But by 1952, the meaning of gross had changed to such an extent that it could no longer be used in the same context. So for the publication of the RSV, “waxed gross” became “dull” in Matthew and Acts, and “gross darkness” became “thick” darkness in Isaiah and “deep” darkness in Jeremiah. But the Revised Standard Version does in fact use the word gross once: in Psalm 119, in the sentence “their heart is gross like fat, but I delight in thy law,” where gross can mean nothing else but ‘repulsive.’

is a word that is rich in history and widely variant in meaning. While the new definitions of the word became more and more disparaging, the word itself grew stronger and affixed itself more into the English vocabulary. It will very likely continue to do so; the history of gross is still current, still happening. It has traveled from physically coarse to intellectually coarse to morally coarse, and finally to repulsive. One can only imagine what it will mean next.

Works Cited

Bible: King James Version. University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative,1997. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.
Bible: Revised Standard Edition. University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative,1997. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.
Collins Cobuild Concordance and Collocations Sampler. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.
Johnson, Samuel. Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Online. Internet.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2002. Online. Internet. 3 October, 2002.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 2002. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.
Willett, Perry, Ed. Victorian Women Writers Project. 1995-2000. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.
Works of the Bard, The. 1993. Online. Internet. 3 October 2002.

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