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Beating About the Gooseberry Bush

By Anatoly Liberman

In October 1860, an otherwise undistinguished old bachelor, who resided in the country and told this story himself, volunteered to walk with his nineteen-year old niece to her father’s house, two miles or so away. They had not gone a hundred paces when they were suddenly overtaken by a young gentleman of their acquaintance. The man remarked that he was heading in the same direction and with their permission accompanied them. Since the young people “seemed very much taken up with one another,” the uncle did not pretend to be part of the group and ambled peacefully behind. When the company reached their destination, the gentleman bid them goodbye, and the young lady informed her uncle that she could not thank him enough for being so kind and doing gooseberry. The old man had no idea what she meant and inquired around. All his friends laughed at his ignorance.

In dialectal use, to play gooseberry was first recorded in 1837. As we can see, even two decades later not everybody understood it. The OED gives several citations for gooseberry “chaperon” but does not try to explain its origin. The musings offered below will be of little help, but they may provoke a comment from someone better informed about such matters than I am. In some places, it was customary to send a young boy to accompany lovers. The boy, whose instructions were (proverbially) “to pick daisies” but who would be smart enough to understand what the grownups expected from him, must have enjoyed the role of a family spy and done everything in his power to spoil the fun. He was called a daisy picker. (The Germans, at least at that time, called such an implacable buttinsky killjoy elefant “an elephant.”) All this makes sense, but why and how was daisy replaced by gooseberry and daisy picker by gooseberry picker? According to one conjecture, gooseberry pickers (grandmothers, aunts, uncles—not necessarily young boys) hurt their hands by dealing with prickles while the lovers were having a good time. This is a far-fetched hypothesis. A search for a “proto”-story in which an innocent old relative was picking gooseberries, unaware of the events a few yards away, did not yield any results.

Just how gooseberry is connected with goose is also unclear. Associations between plant names and the names of birds and beasts are as common as they are puzzling: compare cranberry, that is, crane-berry (what do cranberries have to do with cranes?). I won’t discuss the origin of gooseberry here because the main competing suggestions can be found in any good modern dictionary. More enigmatic are Old Gooseberry “devil” (no citations before 1797 in the OED) and gooseberry fool “gooseberries stewed and pounded with cream.” Dimwits, devils, and geese have merged in our etymology, and disentangling them will be no easy matter.

For some inexplicable reason, birds are supposed to be stupid. Goose, dupe, and booby (all three are bird names) mean “silly person.” Gawk and possibly geek are cognates of Engl. dialectal yeke (Icelandic gaukur, German Gauch, and so forth) “cuckoo,” but cuckoos have had a bad press for centuries. In addition to gull “sea mew” (“Adieu, adieu! My native shore/ Fades o’er the waters blue;/ The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,/ And shrieks the wild sea-mew”—what a pity that Byron has fallen out of favor!), there is gull “unfledged bird, especially gosling,” the root of the adjective gullible and the dubious etymon (source) of gull “to dupe.” Geese may have been treated with contempt because they were eaten in great quantities and did not seem to deserve a better fate. Gaggling is an occupation of little worth, and being gaga brings little joy. But the other birds?

Fool “dish made with cream” turned up in 1598. The earliest citation for gooseberry fool in the OED does not antedate 1719, and Old Gooseberry (with a small g) surfaced in a dictionary of slang only in 1796. We have no way of ascertaining how long all of them had been current in dialects or among “the lower classes” before they reached print. Of the comparable names of the devil Old Nick, Old Harry, Old Scratch, and Old Bogey come to mind, but there are many more, and the origin of Nick, Harry, and the rest is far from trivial. I wonder whether Old Gooseberry could emerge as Old Goosebury. The noun bury “manor,” well known as the second component of place and family names (compare Bunbury), also occurred with the spelling berry. Goosebury would mean “goose-place; a place where fools live.” Considering how often the devil is outsmarted in folklore, Old Fool would not be an improper name for him. Additionally, Old Goosebury/berry would be hard to understand and thus an ideal taboo name. Gooseberry fool seems to have existed for quite a few centuries. If Old Gooseberry ever stood for Old Goosebury with the sense I ascribed to it, gooseberry fool means “fool-fool or fool’s fool,” a phrase reminiscent of tautological compounds to which at one time I devoted a detailed post (courtyard = “yard-yard,” lukewarm = “warm-warm,” etc.). Be that as it may, judging by the name of the dish, gooseberry and fool combined easily. Is it improbable that doing gooseberry arose with the meaning “going on a fool’s (the devil’s?) errand, playing the role of a dupe in somebody else’s game”? A vague guess about a connection between doing gooseberry and gooseberry fool was offered many years ago. The history of the idiom and of the devil’s odd name is obscure, but we will not find the answer to our riddles as long as we concentrate on the qualities of the berry called gooseberry.

This is all I can offer, but for the amusement of those who think that etymology is the most peaceful pastime in the world, I will quote a passage from Walter W. Skeat’s response to his opponent (December, 1887): “It is thus proved to the hilt, that your correspondents prefer to criticize me without having read what I say. The shame is theirs. I am quite indifferent to such criticisms, except in so far as they bring criticism into contempt. To myself it matters little; for my articles will be read long after these carpings have been forgotten.” Exegi monumentum.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    A guess. Since in 1837 “Gubbs” is defined as “a go-between or gooseberry,” and gubb, go-between, and gooseberry are similar sounds, gooseberry may be a development from go-between.
    In 1811 A Provincial Glossary by Francis Grose p,59 gives: “Gubb. a pander, or a go between. Exm.”

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