History of GROOM
The distinction between noun and verb is one of the most fundamental features of human language, and this is reflected in the OED’s organizational principles. The process whereby one part of speech is derived from the other, but without adding a suffix or making any other alteration to the original form, is known variously as conversion or zero derivation. In OED, generally, if a noun has ended up being used as an adjective, or an adjective as an adverb, then these parts of speech are treated under the same headword, as in the case of BLUE adj. & n., EAST adv., adj., & n.1, and innumerable others. However, current OED policy is that verbs, even when arising from other parts of speech via zero derivation, are always handled as separate entries. In English, the transformation is strikingly easy: the loss of infinitive verb endings towards the end of the Middle English period makes the barrier between the two an especially permeable one – and this may explain why it is such a sensitive issue. One frequently hears complaints about nouns being used as verbs: probably the pithiest is Calvin and Hobbes’ “verbing weirds language”. Yet the derivation of verbs from nouns has been happening for hundreds of years; generally, as with so many complaints about language usage, it is the unfamiliarity of new coinages that (some) people find objectionable.
Among the entries newly revised for the latest OED update is a noun / verb pairing that few people will object to, namely, GROOM n.1 and the verb derived from it, GROOM v. There is quite an age gap between the two: the noun goes back to Middle English and possibly earlier, whereas the verb emerged only in the late eighteenth century. By this point, one sense of the noun was predominant, and, unsurprisingly, it was this strand that produced the verb, which then underwent a respectable amount of semantic development itself. However, there is a twist in this tale, because it turns out that the noun hadn’t quite settled down…
GROOM n.1 makes its first appearance around the turn of the thirteenth century in a work called the Ancrene Riwle (a guide for anchoresses), in which it means ‘a boy’, although the use of grom as a byname a century or so earlier suggests that it probably goes back to at least the end of the Old English period. Its origin is something of a mystery: of the various suggestions made, the likeliest is that it’s a derivative of the verb grow, although the absence of any cognates in other Germanic languages means that this can only be conjecture. The early semantic development of the word shows a fairly unremarkable progression: the semantic cluster of ‘boy’ (sense 1), ‘man’ (sense 2) and ‘low-status male / male servant’ (sense 3a) can also be found at BOY n.1 & int., and is reminiscent of, for example, French garçon. It may also have been encouraged by a perceived association with the unrelated word gome, a word meaning ‘man’ (and cognate with Latin homo, from which the word ‘human’ is ultimately descended) which is attested in Beowulf and died out in the early modern period. We know that some influence definitely operated in the other direction, because the word bridegome (denoting a newly married man) started to be rendered as bridegroom in the early sixteenth century, and as ‘bride’s groom’ by the late sixteenth century. Shortly afterwards, the more or less fixed phrase ‘bride and groom’ appears — there is an example in Shakespeare’s Othello.
However, it was the ‘male servant’ semantic strand that came to predominate, developing two specific senses: a servant taking care of horses, and an official of the royal household having a specified responsibility. These senses emerged gradually, but were both well established by the early modern period, and the former came to predominate the semantic space to the extent that earlier senses were in retreat by the end of the eighteenth century — and, as previously noted, it is at this point that groom is first recorded as a verb. Originally it referred to all the activities involved in taking care of horses, but came to be associated particularly with brushing, combing, and so on. In the early nineteenth century, this was extended to the action of improving the appearance of a place or a thing; slightly later, to the action of improving one’s own appearance; and in the late nineteenth century, to animals cleaning or preening themselves or each other. Another development of the early nineteenth century took the verb in a somewhat different direction: in the United States, people began to talk of ‘grooming’ someone for a political role, in terms of making that person presentable and therefore acceptable to the electorate. This sense subsequently became somewhat broader, to express the notion of preparing someone (particularly a chosen successor) for a role. This semantic strand took on a more sinister meaning in the late twentieth century, when groom began to be used to denote the action of gaining the trust of a child or other vulnerable person as a means to any of various malevolent ends.
In the first edition of the OED, many of these senses were not included, possibly because they were not yet perceived as being distinct, or, in the case of the strand relating to preparation for a role, because it had not yet crossed the Atlantic: this strand was included in the supplementary volume published in 1972, while several senses were added to OED Online in the early twenty-first century, or as part of the thorough revision in this update. By comparison, the entry for the noun has changed relatively little: no senses have been added, and much of the revision work related to the structure of the entry rather than its substance. However, one very significant change has taken place since the first edition of the OED was published: in 1900, it was possible to say, of the ‘bridegroom’ sense of GROOM n.1, “Rare except in context with bride”, but this is emphatically no longer the case, for two reasons: the horse is no longer anywhere near as important in society as it was a hundred and twenty years ago, with knock-on effects on job opportunities, and ‘groom’ has largely supplanted ‘bridegroom’ as the term for a man on his wedding day. There is therefore a growing disjunction between noun and verb, although the sense of the noun relating to horses is still sufficiently culturally salient to bridge the gap. Nevertheless, one suspects that any new senses of the verb are likely to emerge from the ‘bridegroom’ sense of the noun – and would make the single quotation from Byron at sense 6 of GROOM v. less of an outlier.
The matter of wondering whether this would please or annoy the great Romantic is left as an exercise for the reader.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.