The way we see things

The Origin of the Word Grinch

December 22, 2011 by Bobb Drake

The Grinch–that adorable, deplorable, despicable classic Christmas character. The very name screams grinchiness: greenish, grouchy, grumpy, grumbly, greedy–grrrr...

Dr. Seuss was a genius at dreaming up the perfect names for his children's book characters. But, did he really simply make up the word Grinch?

According to Etymonline.com, "Grinch" is defined as a "'spoilsport'; all usages trace to Dr. Seuss' 1957 book 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.'"

Dictionary.com defines "grinch" as "a person or thing that spoils or dampens the pleasure of others" and dates its origin between 1965 and 1970, "from the Grinch, name of a character created by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)."

Indeed, the Grinch as we know him first appeared in the book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in 1957, followed, just under a decade later, by the animated film of the same name. However, the devoted Seuss fan would know that the word appears earlier in Seuss' 1953 book "Scrambled Eggs Super!," about Peter T. Hooper, a boy who collects eggs from a number of exotic birds to make scrambled eggs. One of these exotic birds is the "Beagle-Beaked-Bald-Headed Grinch," and he looks like a real sourpuss.


Scrambled Eggs Super - by Dr. Seuss (1 of 2) by MistyIsland1

Could one therefore not surmise that the idea of a grouchy Grinch had been festering in the back of Seuss' mind for some time, surfacing now and again in name or in likeness, as so many classic Seuss characters whose lineage can be traced back through Seuss' earlier works from his advertising and cartooning days, before taking their final and enduring forms? It would seem quite plausible.

But back to our Grinch. His name is seemingly endowed with a perfect phonemic-semantic harmony: the sound "gr" connoting the very meaning of the word "grinch" itself–semantically tainted by so many English words beginning with a similar sound and denoting a similar idea of unpleasantness.

The Seuss corpus contains scores of words invented in a similar fashion. It is no surprise, then, that reputable sources trace the word back to the very imagination of the good doctor himself. However, it is quite possible that Dr. Seuss was influenced by a very similar French term, "grincheux."

The adjective "grincheux" comes from a dialectal form of the term "grincer," to screech, grind or squeak, and can be translated into English as "grouchy" or "grumpy." In fact, the French version of Walt Disney's Snow White, used "Grincheux" to translate the name of the similarly-tempered dwarf – Grumpy. Snow White debuted in France in the spring of 1938, shortly after its late 1937 release in the American market, some twenty years before "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." This is the French version of "Heigh-Ho!"

Perhaps Seuss heard the word "grincheux" during the time he spent in Paris in the 1920s after dropping out of Oxford. Perhaps he came across it at some other point. Perhaps it is simply a chance lexical coincidence. We may never know for sure. All we do know is that the Grinch has joined the ranks of Dickens' Scrooge as one of the most beloved humbugs in American Christmas tradition.

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