I’ve recently moved apartment again. One of my housemates in my apartment had always planned to move in with his wife at the end of the lease. I didn’t want to be a third wheel (or a fifth wheel), so I’m moving on.

Another way to refer to being a person who accompanies a couple, usually awkwardly, is to say they’re a gooseberry. Which seems quite unfair to gooseberries, as they’re just innocent fruit. Where does this association come from?

Well first, let’s look at where gooseberries get their name from. No-one’s actually really sure of the precise etymology. Some people believe it might be a translation of Old French (grosele) or Germanic terms, and therefore not actually related to geese at all. That’s unlikely though, as plant names that refer to animals are usually very deliberately chosen for the link between the two. So while we can’t be sure exactly what the link between geese and gooseberries is, we can be pretty confident that the berry was named after the bird.

The term gooseberry first came to be used to refer to people in the early 18th century, generally meaning fool. This is probably simply an extension of the association of geese with foolishness or silliness. Which again, seems a bit unfair. Geese aren’t particularly silly, are they? But then when a form of the word was first applied to geese, it probably didnt mean silly as we know it now.

Silly is derived from the Old English gesælig, which originally meant happy or fortuitous. The word gained slightly different meanings over the years, each one evolving from the last, so that at one time it could mean innocent or pious. I think it’s the latter that people had in mind when they first started calling geese silly, considering the way they walk around with the heads help up in the air.

But the association of geese with silliness/foolishness stuck, and I think when people started to refer to someone accompanying a couple as a gooseberry, it was because they looked or felt foolish by doing so.

So the word has nothing to do with the berry, but is rather more directly related to geese, and the image we have of them being silly, probably because an earlier form of the word silly was used to refer to them as pious, but that meaning’s been lost now.

Like the origins of a lot of words, it’s a pretty convoluted thread involving subtle shifts in meaning over time, until the link between the term we use now and the original meaning which led to its current use has long been lost. It’s interesting though, that we continue to use the word gooseberry in this way, even though there’s no logical link between the literal and metaphorical uses of the word. Maybe it’s the sound of the word, or maybe on some unconscious level we draw the connection between being the odd one out alongside a couple, and the silliness of a goose.

Or maybe it’s just because nobody likes gooseberries!

8 thoughts on “Gooseberry

  1. Very interesting! This must be a totally British thing. In all my years I’ve never once heard or read gooseberry used to refer to anything but the fruit. “Silly as a goose”, yes, I’ve heard that now & then.

    Perhaps the origin of gooseberry was that geese were wont to get into the patch and eat the berries? Or maybe cooks tossed them in the stuffing for roast goose? I can’t really see a twist that would turn groseille (a currant) into goose, but maybe it derived from grosse baies (fat) berries

    Liked by 2 people

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