November 21, 2013

Case File #013.11.21: GRAVY

When gravy first came into use in the late fourteenth century, it referred to a thick, spicy stew that was served as a dressing or side dish for fish or fowl. The word is an Anglicized form of the Old French grané —most etymologists and linguists believe the v came about as a misreading of the n in handwritten manuscripts, but there are some who postulate the existence of the unrecorded Middle French word gravé, a logical and likely descendant of the Old French, as the immediate antecedent of the English—and though grané meant “broth or stew,” it was itself a derivative of the Latin granum, which meant “grain or seed.” (Grains and seeds, or rather their flours, are traditional thickening agents for stews and gravies.) It wasn't until the sixteenth century that gravy came to mean “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” And it was in the early twentieth century that it acquired its informal senses of “payment or benefits in excess of what is expected or required” and “unfair or unlawful gain.” The related slang phrase gravy train, meaning “a source of easy money,” is also a twentieth-century neologism, one that originated among American railroad workers as a way of referring to any short but profitable haul.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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