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Playing gooseberry

Q From Marc S Glasser: Like many Americans, I learn a lot about the common language that divides us from British programs — er, programmes — that cross the pond and appear on American public television. Just now I saw a 1998 episode of As Time Goes By in which one character, invited for a weekend in the country with four other characters, expresses concern about playing gooseberry. It was clear from the context that she meant an interloper who gets in the way of activities better suited for smaller groups; being a fifth wheel is the familiar term I’d use. A bit of Web searching confirmed the interpretation, but I remain baffled about the connection between fruit and intrusiveness.

A You’re not alone. This odd phrase puzzles everybody who has come across it. Not the least odd thing about it is that in its fairly short history it has flipped sense. As you have learned, today it means intruding on a couple, usually lovers, who wish to be alone. As you might also say, “two’s company, three’s a crowd”. But when it first appeared, in the nineteenth century, matters were very different.

A delightful story by a man who wrote under the pseudonym of “an old bachelor” appeared in Notes and Queries in 1860. He told how he was accompanying his nineteen-year-old niece on a walk when a young man joined them. He went on:

I observed nothing particular on the road, except that my niece and our casual companion seemed very much taken up with one another, and left me to my own meditations. But when we reached my brother’s house, and the young gentleman had wished us good morning, my niece, to my great surprise, not only informed me that I was the kindest of uncles, but added that she could not express how much she felt obliged to me for doing gooseberry.

Notes and Queries, 20 Oct. 1860.

He asked about the expression after dinner that evening and to his chagrin “all the gentlemen present began laughing”. He wrote to the journal for elucidation. The editor added a note:

Though it may not be thought quite the thing, if a young lady and her sweetheart are seen rambling through bypaths and shady lanes alone, yet if they take the same walk accompanied by the young lady’s aunt, married sister, grandmamma, or uncle, there is no “violation of the strictest propriety.” The party thus sanctioning is said to do gooseberry. We confess that, had our correspondent asked for the origin of the phrase, we should have felt at a loss; though very possibly some other correspondent may yet come to our assistance.

Others did, pointing out that the expression was a shortened form of gooseberry-picker, meaning a chaperone who, innocently or on purpose, allowed himself or herself to be distracted by something of interest — notionally picking fruit — so allowing the young couple to be alone together.

The first description of the gooseberry-picker that I can find suggests a slightly different association:

[His] duty is to hover about, to watch his patroness’s wants and wishes; escort her, if she require it, to the supper room, make way for her and secure a place for her, stay by her, until somebody comes up with whom she wishes to flirt, and then withdraw and give his place to that person.

The Parson’s Daughter, by Theodore Edward Hook, 1833.

This leaves us no nearer to understanding why the gooseberry should have been chosen as the fruit, nor why picking it was the activity involved. In Popular Sayings Dissected in 1894, a Mr A Wallace (nobody seems to know his first name), argued that the chaperone, “has to undergo all the pains and penalties attached to gathering a prickly fruit, while the others have the pleasure of eating it.” We may disregard this description of the self-abnegating chaperone as the romantic fantasy that it surely was. There must have been very few opportunities for actually picking gooseberries on walks (or was this perhaps the point?); it would have been more appropriate to select the wild blackberry, frequently harvested in season. One writer to Notes and Queries wondered if it derived from some work of fiction now lost to memory, but nobody’s managed to unearth it. The activity was also known as daisy-picking, which made a little more sense, particularly as children were often used as chaperones in this situation.

There were earlier gooseberries in slang. A gooseberry could be a fool or simpleton, borrowed from the ancient dish gooseberry fool. Old Gooseberry was the devil — an exact parallel to Old Harry — perhaps using the word in the sense of a being who could with care be outwitted. To play old gooseberry meant to make mischief or to defeat, destroy or ruin, or to seriously mismanage some matter:

You go and play old gooseberry with your constitution, you know, pitch your liver to Old Harry, and make ducks and drakes of your nervous system; — why, bless my soul, you know, you’ll be dead in two-two’s.

The Colonial Monthly (Australia), Mar. 1869.

Might play gooseberry or do gooseberry have originally derived from playing old gooseberry, notionally (if not actually) to get between a lover and his lass and spoil their fun?

What we can understand is why the expression flipped from being a person who allowed a young couple to be romantically engaged to somebody who got in the way of amorousness. Once the bonds of propriety weakened and chaperones were no longer required, a third person ceased to be a fig leaf of respectability and became a mere nuisance.

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Page created 03 Mar 2012