the grapevine

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sun Feb 21 18:24:38 UTC 2010

Here is a tale about the origin of the expression "heard through the grapevine".  I've come upon it on several websites lately, and it appeared in print as early as 1990.  I haven't tried to trace the history of the story.

[On West Eleventh street stood] the Grapevine, a popular roadhouse built here in 1838.  The wood frame structure was a hangout for early artists of the Village who came to this tavern to swap gossip.  Returning to their garrets, or possibly their rooms around the corner in the Tenth Street Studio, these gossiping artists had an answer ready when asked where they got their information: "Through the Grapevine."  During the Civil War, the phrase was adopted to mean "A source of unofficial military information". . . .
Terry Miller, Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way, New York: Crown Publ., 1990, p. 135.

This is supported with a photograph of The Grapevine in the 1890s.  According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, The Tenth Street Studio Building was erected in 1857.
On the whole, this strikes me as being One of Those Stories.  I suppose that an army on the march would not carry wagons of telegraph poles among its baggage, but would string the wires from trees and bushes, and that the sight of these wires would enough resemble wild grapevines to suggest the image.

Checking Proquest for the American Periodical Series and those of its newspapers which date to before the Civil War, I find nothing useful from "through the grapevine" or "by the grapevine" (checking "grapevine" as well as "grape vine").  For grapevine and telegraph I find the following, which at least antedates what James Murray knew, circa World War I:

The ladies, you know, are the successful manipulators of the "grapevine" telegraph, and they operate it incessantly.
ARMY OF THE OHIO.   Our Special Correspondent.   New - York Daily Tribune, December 5, 1862, pg. 3

OED, under "grapevine" has
2. In various applied senses:    a. Orig., a canard: current during the American civil war, and shortened from ‘a despatch by grape-vine telegraph’ (Funk's Stand. Dict.). Now in general use to indicate the route by which a rumour or a piece of information (often of a secret or private nature) is passed.

a1867 B. F. WILLSON Old Sergeant vii. (Funk) Just another foolish grape-vine. 1891 Century Mag. Mar. 713/2 The ‘grape-vine’ spoke to us of little else.  ****

and specifically "grapevine telegraph":
1889 FARMER Americanisms s.v., During the Civil War exciting news of battles not fought and victories not won were said to be received by grape-vine telegraph. 1936 J. G. BRANDON Pawnshop Murder iii. 26 I'll see what I can get over the ‘grapevine’ telegraph. 1951 John o' London's 17 Aug. 494/2 First with the news was..the little old man who cleans our windows... He is our grapevine telegraph. 1953 X. FIELDING Stronghold I. i. 5, I had long ago ceased to wonder at the workings of their grape-vine telegraph.
1864 in Southern Hist. Soc. Papers (1876) I. 437 Many ‘grape-vine’ telegraphic reports are afloat in camp.

The OED uses "the grapevine" as part of its definition of "bush telegraph", composed in the 1890s, probably.
 orig. Austral., bush-rangers' confederates who disseminated information as to the movements of the police; transf., rapid spreading of information, or of a rumour, etc.; the ‘grapevine’;
1878 Australian I. 507 (Morris), The police are baffled by..the number and activity of the *bush telegraphs. 1893 K. MACKAY Out Back v, A hint dropped in this town set the bush telegraphs riding in all directions.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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