SV: query: taboo against 3 people in picture

Didier BOTTINEAU didier.bottineau at WANADOO.FR
Wed Feb 22 15:58:40 UTC 2012

--> I read somewhere that "gooseberry" used to be a euphemism for the devil.

--> an alternative explanation from the Bloomsbury dictionary of word origin

"play gooseberry", or to be an uncomfortably superfluous 3rd person between two lovers, goes back to the early 19th century and may have originated in the notion of a chaperone (ostensibly) occupying herself with picking gooseberries while the couple being chaperoned did what they were doing (gooseberry-picker was an early 19th century term for a chaperone).
+ the OED does have an entry for "gooseberry-picker"

Here in France we romantically "hold the candle" ("tenir la chandelle")

... three is decidedly an "odd" number!


The third person joining another couple is said "to be playing gooseberry". Anybody know why?

(Sorry, David, nothing to do with your question.)


On 22 Feb 2012, at 15:09, Didier BOTTINEAU wrote:

All this is also remiscent of Diana’s famous 1995 interview
"Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."
--> in a strictly monogamous culture, it would be tempting to imagine that a picture with three people in it is remiscent of "overcrowded marriages" / "ménage à trois", a rather unpleasant notion for the people in the picture; while four people in the picture are not supposed to evoke one marriage, but two (in French we also occasionally "ménage à quatre", though!), and so make up an unproblematic number. I have no idea if this connection could apply to South-East Asian and Pacific cultures.

Peter Trudgill FBA 
Prof. of Sociolinguistics, Agder Univ., N; 
Adjunct Prof., RCLT, La Trobe Univ., AU; 
Prof. Emeritus of Eng. Linguistics, Fribourg Univ, CH;
Hon. Prof. of Sociolinguistics, UEA, Norwich, UK

New book: Sociolinguistic typology: social determinants of linguistic complexity. OUP. 2011.
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