A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (137)?…

Through the grapevine

I can’t say that soul music floats my boat but I do like Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version of the Gladys Knight and the Pips’ original, I heard it through the grapevine. When we hear things through the grapevine, we use the phrase to indicate that we received the information informally or via an indirect route, not straight from the horse’s mouth. But why a grapevine?

The clue to understanding the phrase is provided by its original manifestation, the grapevine telegraph. In today’s world of instant communications, it is hard to credit how revolutionary the introduction of the telegraph was. First demonstrated in public in 1844 when Samuel Morse sent a message from Washington to Baltimore, it changed for ever the way and the speed with which people in different communities and, eventually, nations and continents could communicate with each other.

In contrast to telegraph wires that ran straight and true and delivered their message accurately and shortly after their despatch, the figurative grapevine telegraphs were unreliable, often garbling their message and implanting half-truths. Rather like the grapevine itself, there were many knots and twists and turns but the message was eventually delivered. It relied on word of mouth rather than, for the time, cutting-edge technology.

Our phrase first appeared in print in a political dictionary in 1852, only eight years after Morse had unleashed the telegraph. The lexicographer wrote “By the Grape Vine Telegraph Line…we have received the following.” In times of turmoil, such as civil war, there is a need to keep a line of communication going, no matter how ramshackle and unreliable. Amongst the soldiers rumours would spread like wildfire through unofficial channels. As Major James Connolly noted in his Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland in a diary entry for 1862, “we get such news in the army by what we call the grape vine, that is grape vine telegraph. It is not at all reliable.

The availability of information through this unofficial and variable channel proved invaluable to the Unionist cause during the American Civil War as John G Nicolay and John Hay noted in their Abraham Lincoln: A history, published in 1888, “one of the most important and reliable sources of knowledge to the Union commanders in the various fields, which later in the war came to be jocosely designated as the grape-vine telegraph.” Information and rumours often came through communication channels that slaves had developed. This has led some to think that the grapevine is a reference to one of the crops that the slaves were forced to tend. Possibly but I rather like the simple association with the shape of the vine. It certainly wasn’t the Grapevine in Greenwich Village which was a popular meeting place for Union officers and Confederate spies as the phrase predates the Civil War.

Telegrams, at least for ordinary working people, became a thing of dread in the 20th century as they were the means by which the military informed families that their loved one had been killed or lost in action. Although the last telegram was sent in the UK in 1982, our variant of the grapevine, the jungle telegraph, is still rumbling along. It first appeared in the 1870s and is a phrase resonant of the far-flung parts of the empire and the sound of drums passing information from one point to the other.

The Australian variant is the bush telegraph and it may have had a very specific reference to the means by which convicts on the run passed on information about police movements. The Australian writer, Morris, noted in 1878, “the police are baffled by the number and activity of the bush telegraphs.” It was also the name of a popular Australian radio station, so I heard on the grapevine.


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