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TWTS: Gross misuse of "gross" could have gross consequences

The various definitions of “gross” aren’t quite numerous enough to qualify as a gross, but they are all over the board.

A listener named Kwame Hooker has taken notice: “I’m curious about how the word gross morphed into multiple meanings [such as] monetary and disgusting.”

Interestingly, we’ve been using “gross” in myriad meanings for hundreds of years. It came into English from French sometime in the 14th century. In French, “gross” meant “large” or “big,” and those are also the earliest meanings in English.

From there, “gross” takes on the meanings of “conspicuous magnitude” or “striking.” That’s how it came to be an intensifier for things that aren’t good, i.e. flagrant. For example, “gross carelessness” or a “gross sin.” This is also where “gross error” and “gross misdemeanor” come from.

“Gross” later takes on a set of meanings that refer to comprehensiveness, or the entire or whole of something. “Gross income,” “gross sale,” and “gross national product” all got their start here.

Finally, there's a whole set of meanings that refer to texture or quality. “Gross” meant “consisting of large particles.” That is, the object in question lacked fineness; it was coarse.

Of course, the meaning of “gross” that is probably most familiar for many of us is “inspiring disgust.” To hear how “gross” got to this point and where it went next, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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