Q: In the course of your recent fun discussion with Leonard Lopate about the English language, you speculated that “gruesome” was derived from the old English word “grue.” I suggest that a more likely origin is the German “grausam.” Do you have any further thoughts on this subject?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary says “gruesome” comes to us from the Middle English verb “grue,” which means to feel terror. The word “grue,” in turn, may have been borrowed from similar words in old German, Dutch, Danish, or Swedish languages. So, one can make the case that both the English word “gruesome” and the German word “grausam” are derived from the various Germanic versions of “grue.” The OED’s earliest reference for “grue” is from 1300 and its earliest reference for “gruesome” is from 1570.
An interesting footnote: John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins points out that “gruesome” was used in only Scotland and northern England for more than two centuries. It didn’t become a common English word until Sir Walter Scott began using it in his novels in the early 19th century.