The Grammarphobia Blog

Roots of the grapevine

Q: I assume the word “grapevine” originally referred to a vine on which grapes grow. When did it come to mean a casual way of passing information along, as in the Motown song of the ’60s?

A: Yes, “grapevine” did originally refer to Vitis vinifera, the vine of the common grape. It first showed up in New England in the mid-17th century as two words.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a Jan. 19, 1654, entry in the town records of Providence, RI:

“five Acres of Low Land Layd out on the South side of the West River for Robert Pike to make Medow, bounded on the West End with a black Oak markt on 4. Sides, and on the East end on the lower side (that small slipe of low Land) by the grape Vines.”

The use of “grapevine” to mean an informal source of information began life in the mid-19th century as “grapevine telegraph,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The slang dictionary defines the 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.”

When “grapevine telegraph” first appeared in the early 1850s, it referred to the transmission of questionable or outdated information.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized newspaper databases are from two weeklies that were published on the same date—April 17, 1852—in different states.

This one is from the editorial page of the Freeman (Fremont, OH): “The following important dispatch was recived [sic] by the ‘Grape Vine’ telegraph—It came to hand just in time for this week’s ‘issoo,’ and the attentive ‘operator’ at Tiffin city has our thanks for his invaluable favor.”

What follows is an anonymous, satirical letter to the editor, full of outlandish misinformation about an election for township offices.

The second example published that day is from the Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, IN): “the aforesaid writer is awfully behind the times, a resident, perhaps, of some deep diggings where the sun never shines, and the inhabitants get their news by the grapevine telegraph. It would be no easy matter to ascertain the number of people badly fooled.”

The fact that the expression appeared on the same day in different states suggests that it was around much earlier in speech.

It shows up again a couple of months later, on June 30, 1852, in another Terre Haute weekly, the Wabash Express: “We suppose the information came from Maine and California (the Aroostook and Sierra Nevada,) by the mud turtle line, or the grapevine telegraph.”

And the July 17, 1852, issue of the Wabash Courier uses the phrase to introduce a mock letter from James Buchanan, then a former secretary of state and later a president, to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan:

From the Pittsburgh Despatch. By the Grape Vine Telegraph line, in connection with Virginia Fence and Mason & Dixon’s Line, we have received the following interesting correspondence—far ‘ahead of the foremost,’ which we hasten to lay before our readers.”

(The word sleuth Barry Popik has found an earlier reprint of that passage in a New Jersey newspaper, the Trenton State Gazette, June 22, 1852. We haven’t been able to find the original Pittsburg Dispatch article.)

During the American Civil War, “grapevine telegraph” was used to describe doubtful information about the war that was passed along from mouth to mouth. Union supporters often used the phrase for what they considered Confederate propaganda, as in this example from the Jan. 8, 1862, Evansville (IN) Daily Journal:

“Some of those who are so very anxious that the South should have its rights, were very much elated at the news by grapevine Telegraph from Evansville via Phillipstown, to the effect that there had been a fight in Kentucky, in which the Federals were badly whipped, and were rushing into Evansville by the thousands, perfectly panic-struck.”

And this example comes from the June 12, 1862, Daily Alta California (San Francisco): “Yesterday the rebel grapevine telegraph was actively employed. It gave out oracularly that [Maj. Gen.] Sterling Price had crossed the Tennessee River near Florence, Ala., with 10,000 men, and was making his way to Nashville.”

The OED notes that the word “grapevine” was also used by itself during the war to mean a false or unfounded rumor or story. The dictionary cites a passage, which we’ve expanded, from “The Old Sergeant,” an 1863 poem by Forceythe Willson.

In the poem, a dying Union soldier imagines that he wasn’t really wounded at Shiloh and that his memory of being cut down is all in his mind: “It’s all a nightmare, all a humbug and a bore; / Just another foolish grape-vine—and it won’t come any more.”

Random House has a somewhat earlier example that uses both long and short versions of the expression:

“We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is, ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not at all reliable.” (From an 1862 diary entry by James A. Connolly, first published in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1928. Connolly enlisted as a private in the Union Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

The next Oxford example is from a postwar article by Horace Carpenter, a former lieutenant in the Ninth Louisiana Battalion, about life at Johnson’s Island, a prison-of-war camp for Confederate officers in Lake Erie near Sandusky, OH. Here Carpenter discusses rumors of prisoner exchanges:

“The ‘grape-vine’ spoke to us of little else. The main feature of this prison telegraph was its complete unreliability. As I remember, it was never correct, even by accident.” (We’ve expanded the citation, from the March 1891 issue of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.)

Today the word “grapevine” refers to the informal transmission of information that may or may not be true. As the OED explains, “Now in general use to indicate the route by which a rumour or a piece of information (often of a secret or private nature) is passed.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), the second novel in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy: “Down there at that express company they find out about everything a guy does. They got the best grapevine in the world.

Random House has an earlier example from John Brown’s Body, a 1928 poem by Stephen Vincent Benét: “And the grapevine whispered its message faster / Than a horse could gallop across a grave.”

In a 2009 post, we dismissed the notion that the usage ultimately comes from The Old Grapevine, a Greenwich Village tavern frequented by politicians, artists, and intellectuals.

We’ve found no evidence that the tavern was the source of the old usage, though it may have helped popularize it. We also haven’t seen evidence that the usage was inspired by hastily strung early telegraph wires that twisted like grapevines.

The expression “grapevine telegraph” showed up in the US as telegraph wires were spreading across the country. Samuel Morse sent his famous message, “What hath God wrought,” from Washington to Baltimore in 1844.

We suspect that the simple presence of telegraph wires inspired the figurative use of “grapevine telegraph” for the informal transmission of information. As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, the usage was “probably so called from the grapevine’s being thought of as a humble substitute for a telegraph line.”

A similar expression, “clothesline telegraph,” appeared during the Civil War. The March 22, 1862, Cambridge (MA) Chronicle describes Southern women who spread Confederate propaganda as “tattlers, and operators upon the clothesline telegraph, mischief makers.”

Similarly, the figurative expression “bush telegraph” showed up in the late 19th and “jungle telegraph” in the early 20th century.

In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington writes that slaves on the plantation where he grew up used the “grapevine” expression for their whispered conversations about the war:

“Though I was a mere child during the preparation for the Civil War and during the war itself, I now recall the many late-at-night whispered discussions that I heard my mother and the other slaves on the plantation indulge in. These discussions showed that they understood the situation, and that they kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the ‘grape-vine’ telegraph.”

However, we haven’t seen any written wartime examples for “grapevine” or “grapevine telegraph” used to describe such slave discussions. And as we’ve said, “grapevine telegraph” was often used during the war in the sense of Confederate propaganda.

We’ll end with a few lines from Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Motown song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, that was a hit in the 1960s for Gaye as well as Gladys Knight & the Pips:

You could have told me yourself
That you loved someone else
Instead I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I’m just about to lose my mind

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