Mind your language

How did the same word come to describe the activities of stable lads and sexual predators?

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

Grooming is a horrible phenomenon of modern life when it happens to abused children. Yet a magazine such as GQ can announce the ‘Eight best grooming products in the world this week’. The GQ grooming is not of children, nor yet of horses, but of men at their own hands. Identical words can thrive in silos with quite different meanings.

A groom was originally a boy, it seems, though the word popped up from nowhere in the 13th century. Some think it related to the Old French gromet, which gave us the English grummet or gromet, ‘ship’s boy’. In French, in the form gourmet, it came to mean ‘wine-merchant’s assistant’, and was borrowed by English again in the 19th century to mean ‘connoisseur of eating’. Gourmet is unrelated to gourmand, ‘greedy-guts’, of unknown origin.


I think Gromit, who lives with Wallace, got that name because it sounded funny. As a nautical eye-hole or an electrical washer, a grommet, unlike the dog, is pronounced ‘grummit’. The dog’s first film in 1989 predated the War of Jennifer’s Ear in the 1992 election campaign, about a little girl supposedly unable to get to
a grommet or myringotomy tube to relieve her glue-ear.

None of these words is related to bridegroom. That comes from Old English brydguma, from bryd, ‘bride’ and guma, ‘man’. The word bride in the Middle Ages could refer to male or female. A brydguma was a man who was a bride.

By the 16th century, gome ‘man’ (as guma had become) was obsolete, so was assimilated to groom, with its independent history as ‘boy, servant’, and bridegroom was now understood as ‘bride’s fellow’. A servant could groom horses, but he might look after the king as Groom of the Stool, at the monarch’s stool of ease. Among medics, such a stool lent its name to the turd itself.

In 19th-century American politics, grooming was applied to preparation of a candidate. The name for paedophile grooming came, I think, not from that, but from sexual grooming among animals. ‘The male grooms the rump of the female by gently nibbling her fur with his incisors,’ remarked an issue of the Journal of Zoology in 1989. I shall be alert for such behaviour from my husband.

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