The Grammarphobia Blog

Grotty or grotesque?

Q: Perhaps this is a shot in the dark, but I wonder if you have any information on the use of the word “grotesque” in the mid-19th century in reference to a costume or a “fancy dress.” I’m doing research on a series of masquerades in Brooklyn during the Civil War, and newspapers of the day often use the term “grotesque.” Does it just mean elaborate, strange, and operatic? Or might there be a more specific connotation? Any thoughts would be very welcome.

A: The word “grotesque” (as both a noun and an adjective) got its start in the 16th century. It literally meant “grotto style” (as in “grotto-esque”), and comes from the style of painting on the walls of grottoes (once a popular term for the ruins of ancient Roman buildings that had been excavated).

That sense of the word is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers.”

Works of art done in this style were called “grotesques,” and were sometimes referred to in the Italian form, grottesco (singular) or grotteschi (plural).

The Restoration poet Sir William Davenant wrote many court masques. In his Works (about 1668) is a piece called simply “Masque” that has the line: “And in the midst was placed a large compartiment composed of Groteske work.”

A little later, the meaning was widened to include representations that were so elaborate as to be distorted or unnatural. And eventually the word came to be used not just for artworks, but also for anything fantastical or wildly ornamental.

One of the later meanings common in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the OED, was “ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd.”

I can’t find any 19th-century citations in the OED for “grotesque” that specifically mention costume or fancy-dress balls.

But I did find this reference from an 1860 book or publication (don’t know which) called Heads & Hats: “The women wore absurdly high coiffures; and the men vied with them in their height, if not in their grotesqueness.”

And here’s one from Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (published in 1863): “You can conceive nothing more grotesque than the Sunday trim of the poor people.” She probably meant something like “absurdly overdone.”

And the OED has a couple of 19th-century references to the use of “grotesque” as a noun meaning a clown or buffoon.

Oxford didn’t pick up many of its early citations from popular sources like newspapers and broadsides, unfortunately. So it may have missed this sense of “grotesque” as applied to exaggeratedly fanciful or elaborate costumes.

The big Webster’s New International Dictionary (unabridged 2d ed.), from the 1950s, has some interesting comments on the meaning of “grotesque.” An excerpt:

“The grotesque is distinguished from the ugly in that it affords a positive aesthetic satisfaction. The ugly is the opposite of the beautiful; the grotesque is the complement of physical beauty representing in the material world a distortion of aesthetic relations.”

Things changed a lot in the following 10 years. During the Beatlemania era, “grotty” (formed from “grotesque”) became a slang word meaning disgusting, ugly, or just plain bad.

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