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Grubbing around for etymology

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Written by Stan Carey

Grubbing around for etymology

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Grub is first recorded in English in the 14th century, as a verb meaning ‘dig’. Its source is the Indo-European root ghrebh-, through which grub is related to grave and groove. The noun grub appeared some decades later, in the ‘insect larva’ sense – probably inspired by the fact that such creatures were often found by animals grubbing in the soil in search of food.

These uses of grub are still current, centuries later, along with many extended uses and related senses. The phrasal verb grub up means ‘to dig something out of the ground, especially with your hands’, while grub around (or grub about) means ‘to try to find something by moving things around somewhere, especially somewhere that is dirty or difficult to reach’. The image in Macmillan Dictionary’s example sentence – ‘grubbing around at the back of the sofa’ – is very similar to grubbing in soil, showing how naturally the word was extended to various domains.

Grubbing in the ground could dirty one’s clothes and skin, and so it gave rise to the adjective grubby, ‘dirty and needing to be washed’, and the related noun grubbiness. These are also used figuratively: if you treat someone grubbily or in a grubby way, you treat them badly. Figurative grubby belongs to a whole cluster of metaphors in which dirt is associated with morally questionable or ‘low’ behaviour. Sometimes the different worlds of grub intersect, such as the Fawlty Towers episode in which the health inspector cites ‘dirty and grubby food-handling overalls’.

The informal sense of grub to mean ‘food’ emerged in the 17th century, again probably as a result of animals such as pigs grubbing in the ground for roots, nuts, and grubs. Grub has become popular in slang over the centuries, often in food-related phrases such as grub-hooks ‘fingers or hands’, grub-pile ‘meal’, grub-slinger ‘cook, waiter, or waitress’, grub station ‘restaurant’, grub-trap ‘mouth’, and grub warehouse ‘stomach’, all recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The word is a go-to option for those who want something plain and punchy. Pub grub is a popular phrase for this reason and has the added benefit of rhyme. Grub’s up (‘The food/meal is ready’) has a colloquial, homely flavour that benefited this recent news headline. From lowly beginnings, grub has made its way to dinner tables across the world.

About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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