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Q From Colin Bain, Canada: What is the origin of the term grub for food?

A You might not like to learn that it’s the same word as that for a caterpillar or other insect larva, though you will be relieved to hear that it has nothing to do with actually eating them.

The source is the old Germanic word meaning to dig (which is also the source of grave). The verb to grub came first in English, around 1300, and meant just what it still does: to break up the surface of the ground or to clear the ground of roots and stumps. Derived from it is our adjective grubby for somebody or something that is dirty and the Australian term grub for a person who is unclean or who has messy habits.

The connection with food is the idea of animals foraging for food. In their wild state, for example, pigs grub for edible roots and the like. The larval sense comes from this, because grubs often feed in leaf litter or around roots. The slang sense of human food appears around the middle of the seventeenth century and is also linked to grubbing in the ground for something to eat.

Interestingly, in case you should think that slang words must either soon transform themselves into standard English or quickly vanish again, grub has remained slangy — at best informal — in all the years since, as have compounds like grubstake (from the nineteenth-century goldfields practice of investing in a prospector by providing him with money to buy food).

Grub has also had several other slang senses that have not survived, such as that for a dwarfish, mean, slovenly sort of person, or someone of small abilities who can survive only by the most menial sort of work. Grub Street was once the name of a real thoroughfare in London (possibly named after a man named Grubbe), which Dr Johnson said was “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems”; Andrew Marvel borrowed its name as a collective for such drudges and their products — hence the short-lived sense of grub for an impoverished author or needy scribbler.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Oct. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 11 October 2003.