What is a Grocer?
Although today we think of a grocer as someone who owns and operates a retail grocery store to the public, the word originally referred to a wholesaler. This merchant would buy large quantities of such foods as could be stored for longer periods, like spices, dried fruits, tea, and coffee. And perhaps tallow and other commodities.
The merchant who bought and then resold these spices and other items retail to the public was called a spicer. But also, a wholesaler was sometimes called a spicer en gross. A gross meant a large amount of some product. Spicer en gross was sometimes shorted to grosser, and from there we get out modern grocer, although we derive the term by way of French.
The word comes to America from England and was used at least as far back as the early 1300’s. Before this time such words as pepperer and spicer were in use, and there was even a Guild of Pepperers. The Guild of Grocers, in the later 14th century, became very important, however.
As above, the word is related to the word gross, and this is also how we derive our related word, grocery. Gross comes from the late Latin grossus, meaning large or bulky. From there, came the Medieval Latin grossarius, someone who sold things in large amounts. Grossarius became grossierin French, and later, probably with the Norman invasion, it came to England to become grosserie(Anglo-French) and then grocer.
Today, the word gross specifically refers to a quantity of 144 of some item. In French, this amount was a grosse douzaine. In English, this shortened to just gross. The specific meaning of the word gross had nothing to do with the word grocer, as this word did not come to us directly out of the word gross, but from the French word for grocer, which would refer simply to someone who bought and sold in bulk. When the word first came into use, there were not many stores similar to what we would call a grocery store. Bulk items were usually sold to individual merchants in markets in the cities and at fairs in the villages, or sold directly to the more wealthy and privileged.
The origin of the word grocer, as explained here, describes a merchant who bought food items in bulk, which could be called in gross or en gros. However, the verb form, also from French, is engrosser, which means to absorb or occupy a large part of something, or, in the economic sense, to buy up all or most of a commodity. We often use this word today, as when we say were are engrossed in a book but in the original sense of the word it is the book that is engrossing us!
So, a grocer was one who engrossed commodities, but there is a negative sense to this word because to buy up large quantities of precious commodities, so as to control the market and be able to sell at a very high price, was a practice that was quite frowned upon, and still is today. It was, in fact, outlawed in England very early on. Therefore, to be an engrosser (engrossier), was not a very good thing. To suppose that the term grocer stems directly from engrossier seems to be common in the literature, but need not be the case at all, and makes no more sense than our modern use of gross for something disgusting coming directly from the word gross used for business purposes. And, in fact, the way we use gross today comes an extended meaning.
You see, in early modern English, engrosser carried two senses: One was someone who sought to “corner the market” by buying up and controlling all the supply, so as to raise the prices sky-high; and the other sense was from the French engrosser which meant to make big, thick, large…in other words to make gross. This word was from the French gros or grosse (feminine), which meant not only large or thick, but also bulky, rough, or coarse. As it came into English, it could mean either bulky or coarse, or large and thick. Someone could have gross features, for instance, meaning his features were rough and “coarse” or he could have a gross stomach, meaning his stomach was large and bloated. It has since been extended to use as an adjective, carrying a negative sense as an intensifier that basically means big, as in he made a gross error. It also became an adjective meaning total, as in gross profit.
Just as something can be large and not disgusting, a merchant could have bought in bulk without being an engrosser. So, to suppose that the modern term grocer comes directly from engross, may be true, but certainly not necessary.
1. Ward, Artemas. The Grocer’s Encyclopedia. N.p.: Cornell University Library, 1911 (2009).
2. Morton, Mark. Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiousities. Toronto: Insomniac, 2004.
3. Rapalje, Stewart, and Robert L. Lawrence. A Dictionary of American and English Law: With Definitions of the Technical Terms of the Canon and Civil Laws : Also, Containing a Full Collection of Latin Maxims, and Citations of Upwards of Forty Thousand Reported Cases in Which Words and Phrases Have Been Judicially Defined or Construed. Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 1997