Q&A: The origin of “heard it on the grapevine”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have grape expectations…

Q: Hi AWC, I was wondering if you could help me with the origin of “heard it through the grapevine”?

A: Sure. It was released by Marvin Gaye in October 1968.

Q: No, not the song, the phrase!

A: Oh, oops. 

Q: It took me by surprise, I must say.

A: Honey, honey yeah.

Q: Ahem. So, the phrase?

A: Well grapevines have been around as long as grapes. But Alexander Graham Bell was the first person to successfully transmit a communication signal through them.

Q: Wait, what? Seriously?

A: Haha no. Just checking you were paying attention. To hear something “through the grapevine” is akin to hearing information from an unofficial source.

Q: And the original botanical term arrived in English in the 1730s?

A: Well, yes actually!

Q: Ooh ooh, bet you wondered how I knew…

A: Ah, it was just an excuse for you to sing more song lyrics. But yes, the term “grapevine” originally had just one meaning – what Macquarie Dictionary still lists today as “a vine that bears grapes”.

Q: Not very scandalous.

A: Nope. Macquarie’s colloquial meaning is the one you’re after: “the network of personal and other contacts through which information ranging from gossip to substantive information is passed informally”.

Q: Oh yes, that’s considerably more juicy.

A: Typically you would hear something either ON the grapevine, or in Mr Gaye’s case, THROUGH the grapevine. Both are correct.

Q: So when did this meaning come about?

A: It was in 1863 during the American Civil War.

Q: 1863 you say? A fine vintage…

A: Etymology Online describes the use of the “grapevine telegraph” as “a secret source of information and rumor in the American Civil War”. It was often used by Southerners to spread misinformation and frustrate their Yankee counterparts.

Q: But why a grapevine?

A: For that, we need a few dots and dashes.

Q: Huh?

A: It is related to Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in the 1830s. STOP.

Q: Stop what?

A: No, sorry. All telegram messages used to end with STOP like that.

Q: Well maybe you could STOP doing that? STOP.

A: Very good! Anyway, the arrival of telegraphic communication was huge. The first telegraph wires were hooked up between Washington DC and Baltimore in 1844 and the very first message was: “What hath God wrought!”

Q: Gosh, that’s ominous. So where do grapes come into all this?

A: Well, as the system grew, it meant thousands of miles of telegraph wire suddenly appeared – hanging a few metres up in the air, suspended between poles placed at regular intervals. As a result, many people likened the sight to how vines were trained to grow along strings between two poles.

Q: Vines such as grapevines!

A: Exactly.

Q: So were these rumours in the war actually being sent via telegraph?

A: Yes! They were literally hearing about it over the “grapevine” – the actual telegraph.

Q: Oh wow, because today it’s typically just general word-of-mouth.

A: That’s right. Telegraph machines had a good run – about 100 years – but today, they’re all but obsolete. Power and telephone lines are of course still a reminder of these early “grapevines”. So, while your grapevine gossip today could still technically come via the telephone line, it could just as easily come from an overheard conversation or an overhead satellite.

Q: Nice. So, hearing something on the grapevine today just means you’re hearing it from unofficial sources.

A: Absolutely. It could be true, but it could also be gossip.

Q: Actually that reminds me of the term “Chinese whispers” – what’s the origin there? It sounds dodgy.

A: Haha, yes, it has racist overtones for sure. It is a game where you pass a whispered message along between players and see how different it ends up from the original. The game’s name is first recorded in the UK in 1964, but most believe it was around many decades before that.

Q: Why “Chinese”?

A: The name came from a racist 19th century notion that Chinese people spoke in a way that was deliberately unintelligible, linking the Chinese language with “confusion”. 

Q: Ouch.

A: Yeah, it is apparently called “the telephone game” in the USA, but the term remains common in the UK and Australia/NZ etc – not just for the game, but used as an idiom to refer to any situation where information is unreliably passed along.

Q: That’s the thing about idioms – frozen in time, like etymological fossils.

A: You’ve been taught well!

Q: Okay, that’s enough knowledge for this week. I’m just about to lose my mind…

A: Honey, honey yeah…


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