The Grammarphobia Blog

When a mess wasn’t messy

Q: How did the word “mess” evolve from a cluttered, untidy condition to a place where the military eats?

A: You’ve got things backwards. The food sense of “mess” came before its untidy sense. Here’s the story.

When “mess” first showed up around 1300 (spelled mes in Middle English), it meant a serving of food or a meal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French, the ultimate source is the Latin verb mittere (to send or let go).

What, you’re probably asking, does sending or letting go have to do with food? Here’s how the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains it.

In Late Latin, which dates from the third to the sixth centuries, mittere came to mean to put or place. And missus, Late Latin for a course of dinner, referred to the putting of food on a table.

The OED says the original meaning of “mess” as a serving or a meal is now seen only in regional dialects or historical references.

However, the dictionary notes that another culinary sense of “mess” arose in the 1300s: “A portion or serving of liquid or pulpy food such as milk, broth, porridge, boiled vegetables, etc.”

Oxford points out that “a mess of pottage” appears in some 16th-century versions of the Bible “alluding to the biblical story of Esau’s sale of his birthright (Genesis 25:29–34).”

Here’s a secular example of the usage, from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602): “I had as leeue you should tel me of a messe of poredge.”

And this is a more recent example from Tooth and Claw (1983), by the Australian mystery writer Gabrielle Lord: “She stirred the mess of lentils.”

Let’s back up a bit now for a new twist in the history of “mess.” In the 1400s, the word came to mean a small group of people who sat together at a banquet and were served the same dishes.

This usage evolved a century later into the military sense—at first referring to a group of soldiers, sailors, or marines who take their meals together.

The OED’s earliest example of the military usage, from a 1536 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, refers to expenses for the “meis of marineris, gunnaris, and utheris.”

Later, the term “mess” also came to mean the place where such groups took their meals, especially groups of similar rank. Here’s an 1822 example in the OED from British military regulations:

“Commanding Officers are enjoined, when practicable, to form a Serjeants’ Mess, as the means of supporting their consequence and respectability in the Corps.”

So how did “mess” get its messy sense?

The Chambers etymology dictionary says Alexander Pope’s use of the term “in the sense of a kind of liquid or mixed food for an animal” led to “the contemptuous use of a concoction, jumble, mixed mass.”

In Epilogue to the Satires (1738), Pope refers to hogs eating each other’s excretions: “From him the next receives it, thick or thin, / As pure a Mess almost as it came in.”

It wasn’t until the early 1800s, according to the OED, that “mess” took on the sense of “a dirty or untidy state of things or of a place; a collection of disordered things, producing such a state.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the 19th-century English theatrical producer William Thomas Moncreiff. In Tom and Jerry (1826), a character says he doesn’t use chalk because it “makes such a mess all over the walls.”

We’ll end with a more dramatic example from The Old Front Line (1917), a prose description of the Battle of the Somme by the English poet John Masefield:

“All this mess of heaps and hillocks is strung and filthied over with broken bodies and ruined gear.”

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