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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Against the grain

To begin with the more unlikely, 'grain' can mean the kermes or alkermes dye, which yoy can read more about, a couple of posts back. From this sense, it came later to mean the dye from cochineal insects.

This came in small pieces, so you might think 'grain' was meant to imply that the stuff looked like seed, but in fact, this meaning of grain comes from the French word for texture or fibre, but while to dye in grain, or to ingrain was originally to dye with the fast kermes colour, it soon came to mean dyeing with any fast dye, while an ingrained ass or an ingrained fool was an incurable dolt.

This is the sense in which Gertrude tells Hamlet:

O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

That aside, it goes against the grain to say it, but if you assume there are two main meanings of 'grain' that are intertwined, there will be more than a grain of truth in that. The first meaning, the grain we go against, is possibly from the Middle English greyne, coming from the Old Norse grein, meaning a division or branch, but more probably from the French sense of fibre or fine structure.

The other meaning, and the one from which the OED tries to wring even the grain found in wood, is the Latin granum, meaning a seed, although when the Romans took something with a grain of salt, it was cum grano salis, showing our term to be a literal translation of the Latin.

A grain, in the seed sense, could also be a weight, the smallest recognisable weight, in fact, and the equal of a grain of wheat taken from the middle of the ear, 1/7000 of a pound avoirdupois, and 1/5700 of a pound Troy.

Grain is highly important as food, and was normally stored in a granary, which in Middle English often was a variation on grange, originally just a granary or an outlying farmhouse with barns for storing tithes delivered in kind, that is, in the form of grain. A granuloma is doubly a seed, because it looks seedlike, and because it is the thickening that forms around a Schistosoma flatworm's egg.

The pomegranate, though, is a very seedy fruit, and gets its name from the Old French, meaning a seedy apple, and the 'seedy apple' idea carries over into Italian, where the same fruit is a melagrana (mela is an Italian apple). Oddly, the modern French have dropped the apple connection, and just call the fruit a grenade, and since the flung explosive device used to be the same shape, and the grenadier, who appropriately, wore an ingrained red uniform.

Following the same twinned thread, gathering grain is to garner, also coming from granum, but the gem stone we call garnet is more of a problem: it either gets its name because it is the colour of the flesh of a pomegranate, or because it is similar in colour to the dye called grain.

But while some people may add cochineal to improve the colour of a gravy, the standard explanation of the word 'gravy' is that it comes from a misreading of the Old Norse grané, perhaps because the Norse used grain of some sort when they made sauces from the meat juices.

Stone and many rocks have a 'grain', a direction of splitting, and surely this sense of 'grain' comes to us from the French sense of texture, rather than from any fancied similarity to seed?

Some timbers, of course, are harder to work, because there are two grains not one, so the timber is cross-grained, a word that applies particularly well to elm wood, according to Nehemiah Grew, but it also applies to people who are difficult to work with. 

Other rocks, known as freestone, have no grain at all, and these are much better to use as building stone, because pieces can be dressed from any direction. One of these grain-free rocks, though, is granite — so-named because of the many tiny mineral grains that can be seen within it, like a compressed block of seed. It is a very distinctive stone with this form, and no other stone is likely to be taken for granite.

Then again, cloth can have a grain as well. If it is a large grain, or grosgrain, like the picture on the left, it is called grogram  in English. One Admiral Edward Vernon was in the habit of wearing a grogram coat, and became known as 'Old Grog'.

When he introduced  watered rum into the Royal Navy, it was also called Old Grog, and then just grog.  Rum, of course, is from sugar from the sugar cane. Any other drink except wine, and we would be back to grain again.

Not that it matters, because I can get there another way.

Vernon's first command was the HMS Rye. I win, again!


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