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Through the grapevine

Q From Cathrin Plog, Germany; a related query came from Corinne Leech: What does heard it through the grapevine really mean and where does it come from?

A Are you perhaps thinking of the Marvin Gaye song of 1968? (Or possibly the version a year before by Gladys Knight and the Pips?)

To hear something through the grapevine is to learn of something informally and unofficially by means of gossip and rumour. The usual implication is that the information was passed person to person by word of mouth, perhaps in a confidential manner among friends or colleagues.

There are several expressions of this type, of which a well-known couple are bush telegraph and jungle telegraph. These are historically rather odd, because both were created well after the era of the telegraph. But that’s because both are imitations of the first such expression, grapevine telegraph, which is where our term comes from.

The phrase was invented in the USA sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s. It provided a wry comparison between the twisted stems of the grapevine and the straight lines of the then new electric telegraph marching across America. The telegraph was the marvel of the 1840s (Samuel Morse’s first line was opened between Washington and Baltimore on 24 May 1844 and rapidly expanded in the following decade), vastly improving the speed of communication between communities. In comparison, the grapevine telegraph was by individual to individual, often garbling the facts or reporting untruths (so reflecting the gnarled and contorted stems of the grapevine), but likewise capable of transmitting vital messages quickly over distances.

The first recorded usage, according to Jonathan Lighter in The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was in a political dictionary of 1852, which included the sentence “By the Grape Vine Telegraph Line ... we have received the following”. Various early references suggest that it was associated with clandestine communication among Southern blacks, especially slaves. For example, a writer named Samuel Bowles wrote a book in 1865 called Across the Continent in which he remarked that Colorado ladies seemed to have some secret method of learning about the latest fashions from the East: “How it is done I do not understand — there must be a subtle telegraph by crinoline wires; as the southern negroes have what they call a grape-vine telegraph”.

The term became widely known during the American Civil War period, so much so that the phrase permanently entered the standard language. Soldiers used it in the sense of gossip or unreliable rumour, as was made very clear in a diary note of 1862 reproduced in Major James Connolly’s Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland: “We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is, ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not at all reliable”. However, it was widely acknowledged that the blacks’ communications network was extremely useful to the Union cause, as John G. Nicolay and John Hay reported in Abraham Lincoln: A History in 1888, calling it “one of the most important and reliable sources of knowledge to the Union commanders in the various fields, which later in the war came to be jocosely designated as the ‘grape-vine telegraph’ ”.

The telegraph is long defunct, but the grapevine seems never to have been more active ...

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Page created 20 Oct 2001