Why Do we Say "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" - What Sense Does That Make?

Posted on 20 Feb 2013 01:47

It makes no literal sense, of course. Have you ever noticed that certain expressions, while they have a definite meaning, and we know exactly why we say them, sound ridiculous when you consider the actual words used? Heard it through the grapevine is one of them. You can't hear anything through the vines of grapes, of course. What if you search for lexical clues and make assumptions?

First, lets recap what the expression means. It is not the most common one today, probably because we don't have to wait to hear rumors after they have been passed on through dozens of people, but instead we get it almost instantly from various sources on the internet. Even before this we began to say things like I see by the papers, and of course, the telephone increased the speed of word of mouth information a great deal. Most people only really know it through the Marvin Gaye song, and through other recordings. But it is in the lexicon, and it means to receive information through unsubstantiated sources, like rumor or gossip, by word of mouth.

Basically, we are talking about information that has been passed from person to person, and changed along the way, with no original source being apparent. To hear something through the grapevine, then, is to hear unreliable information. Many web sources seem to insist that it means "to receive information from informal sources," which is quite meaningless, as it tries to stretch the original meaning of the expression to today's meaning, which will often end up being nonsense. Most of us do not think of our everyday sources of information as formal or informal and to think that a news article or blog post can be said to be more reliable, and therefore more formal than something you picked up on the street or on Facebook, is wishful thinking today.

It should be fairly obvious that the expression never had anything to do with actual grapes or grapevines. Instead, it comes from a means of sending information that dates back to before the Civil War.

One explanation has it that when telegraphs were used first in California to send official information to troops. The first telegraph lines were planned and built by Colonel Frederick A. Bee in 1859, between Placerville and Virginia City. The telegraph was actually built and operated by the Placerville and Humboldt Telegraph Company but it was more popularly known as Bee's Grapevine Line. The lines along the mountainous parts of the route were actually strung on trees instead of poles, which sagged and wound along the ground in many places, resembling the trailing California wild grapevines.

Bee's telegraph was notoriously unreliable, due to falling trees, avalanches,and the habit of the Teamsters of taking bits of the wire any time they needed some to do repair work. Messages were frequently delayed and had to be taken up by the Pony Express. In fact, the news of President Lincoln's election was delayed in such a way and the Pony Express message arrived ahead of the telegraph news. This kind of thing caused the grapevine telegraph to become the butt of jokes and California and Nevada newspapers took it up as a symbol of unreliable information and outdated information, accusing opponents of running a grapevine telegraph, which implied that their information could be a bit fresher.

However, the grapevine and the idea of hearing something through the grapevine was in use before 1859, and Civil War soldiers took up the phrase to differentiate between information that came by telegraph and that which came by person-to-person communication. The hanging and coiling telegraph wires may have helped the expression along, but the expression has actually been used before this, in connection to the Underground Railroad. The grapevine was the railroad's communications system, which was also known as the clothesline telegraph. Grapevines may have been used as a substitute for rope, presumably for clotheslines, so that the two expressions came to be used at the same time. Different color clothes hung out on clotheslines were used as visual codes, which passed information along the network. This could be used not only for helping slaves escape, but for espionage, and Union Captain John Truesdale describes such use in his 1867 work, The Blue Coats.

This Grapevine Telegraph of the Underground Railroad carried information about the movements of escaped slaves and their pursuers via a series of posts or "stations." These posts would have been the actual homes of people friendly to the cause, many of which were Quakers. The same dwellings would serve as shelter for the fleeing slaves along their journey, who would be be allowed rest and refreshment, and then spirited along by night to the next post. Today's meaning of information being passed from person to person along a complicated network (the grapevine) has its origin in this practice.

1. Palmatier, Robert A. Food: A Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
2. Safire, William, and William Safire. Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
3. Firelands Historical Society. The Firelands Pioneer: Underground Railroad Reminiscenses, An Address Delivered at the Fall Meeting of the Firelands Historical Society, Oct. 1887. Norwalk: n.p., 1887.
4. Calkhoven, Laurie. Harriet Tubman: Leading the Way to Freedom. New York: Sterling Pub., 2008.
5. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.
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