Q: I was in an NYC restaurant on the site of The Old Grapevine, a tavern that an article on the wall claimed to be the origin of the term for a rumor mill. The artists and intellectuals who hung out there would pass around rumors heard through the grapevine, according to this article. Is this true?
A: Sorry, but I haven’t found any evidence that The Old Grapevine is the source of the old slang usage, though it may have helped popularize it.
The use of “grapevine” to refer to a rumor mill began life in the mid-19th century as “grapevine telegraph,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
Random House defines this usage as “any informal or unofficial method of relaying important or interesting information, esp. by word of mouth,” or “the means by which gossip or rumor travels.”
The first published citation for “grapevine telegraph” in Random House is from 1852: “By the Grape Vine Telegraph Line … we have received the following.”
Both the short and the long versions appear in this quote from 1862: “We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not all reliable.”
I’ve done lots of looking but haven’t found any solid historical evidence for a connection with the old tavern, only hearsay. What’s needed here are published references from that time.
A July 18, 1915, article in the New York Times about the closing of the old tavern makes great reading, but it has no mention of the pub’s connection with the use of the word “grapevine” to mean a rumor mill.
However, the pub and its name may have reinforced the slang usage. I found this in a footnote in a book called The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech, by Irving L. Allen (Oxford University Press, 1993), page 263:
“The mid-nineteenth-century expression on (or through) the grapevine (i.e., on or through a social network of rumor) is a self-evident metaphor probably taken from the image of a winding, spreading vine. But its popularity in New York may have been influenced by the name of The Old Grape Vine tavern that once stood on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street from 1838 to 1915. It was a hangout and gossip center for local artists, who naturally would have said they heard something ‘at the Grape Vine’ and, thus, make a clever pun.”
By the way, Marvin Gaye recorded the best-known version of the song “I Heard It Though the Grapevine” in 1968, but he wasn’t the first to make it a hit. The song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was a big winner for Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967.