What Is The Origin Of (255)?…

To play gooseberry

One of the things I enjoy when I investigate a word or phrase from a wonderfully rich language is to see how through the ages the meaning has changed, often subtly, sometimes turning a full 180 degrees. Take to play gooseberry, for instance. We use it these days to denote a person who is interrupting the course of true love by hanging around when a couple want to get to know each other better.

In more genteel times, it was difficult for couples who had fallen in love or anticipated that there was likely to be some form of romantic attachment development to spend time together. Reputations and the woman’s good name had to be preserved at all costs. The more headstrong couples would find a way to conduct their trysts but over time a system developed which met the couple’s objectives, or at least some of them, whilst satisfying the parents that the youngsters had behaved with modesty and decorum. This involved someone who acted as a chaperone, keeping at a discreet distance to allow the lovers to chat but close enough to ensure there was no hanky-panky.

Such a person was known as a gooseberry. The term was referred to in a definition for the word Gubbs in A dialogue in the Devonshire dialect of 1837, compiled by Mary and James Palmer, thus; “a go-between or gooseberry. To play gooseberry is to give a pretext for two young people to be together”. Although this seems to be the first appearance of the phrase in print, the Palmers were sufficiently confident that the reader would understand the term to leave it hanging there without a gloss.      

There was a phrase to play old gooseberry, defined by George Grose in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1796 as “a person who, by force or threats, suddenly puts an end to a riot or disturbance”. Old Gooseberry was an epithet for the devil in mediaeval times. Whilst it might be tempting to think that the term gooseberry described the couple’s views of the third party surreptitiously observing their tryst, the early incarnations of the phrase suggest that the gooseberry was helpful to their cause rather than otherwise. Despite the similarities, Grose’s phrase probably has nothing to do with ours.  

It may be that one of the ways the chaperone passed the time was to pick gooseberries or engage in some other harmless pursuit. This comes out in this passage from Edmund Yates’ Nobody’s Fortune from 1872 in which a Mr Womersley, cast in the role of chaperone, exclaims, “I am never in the way; and when I am with you, I betake myself to gooseberry picking or watch the butterflies, with a discretion seldom to be found in an old gentleman so situated”. Similarly, in Yates’ earlier novel, The Rock Ahead from 1868, Lord Sandilands says, “I should think that you might find an opportunity of speaking to the lady in private…and if you want an elderly gooseberry-picker, you may command me”.  

The problem with this theory, of course, is that gooseberries are a seasonal fruit, ripe enough for picking in June and July, and love making is an all the year-round affair. But it might just be an example of what the chaperone may have got up to keep discreetly in the background.

It was around this time, though, that playing gooseberry picked up its modern connotation of being in the way or cramping someone’s style. A story called Cousin Tom printed in the Banffshire Journal on December 20, 1864, contained this passage; “and it flashed upon me that I, like an idiot, was playing gooseberry”. The obliging narrator made their excuses and left.

Quite why there was this volte-face in meaning is unclear. Perhaps it had something to do with a more liberal attitude towards courting couples. Who knows? But it is this meaning which stuck.  

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