The Etymology of “Grinch”

“Grinch” was predictably popularized by Dr. Seuss in 1957, but he was not the first author to use it. Rudyard Kipling included it as an onomatopoetic participle—grinching, or “harsh grating”—in the 1892 poem “The Lament of the Border Cattle Thief.”

Kipling, of course, is also the author of The Jungle Book. Here’s the word in the context of the poem:

It’s woe to bend the stubborn back

Above the grinching quern, †

It’s woe to hear the leg-bar clack

And jingle when I turn!

† quern = a hand-mill for grinding grain

The poem is quite stirring—more a cry for vengeance than a wail of despair—told from the perspective of a proud thief of the Zukka Kheyl, a group of semi-nomadic people who lived near the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, who has been imprisoned and put to labor for stealing cattle from the Jat people. The narrator is evidently reasonably esteemed among his own people, for he is furious that he has been robbed of his freedom and fine weapons and calls himself a “chief of men” (though perhaps just in comparison to the Jat). As the pace and fervor of the poem rises, the narrator swears he will take revenge for his imprisonment by stealing/killing more cattle and setting their land ablaze:

But for the sorrow and the shame,

The brand on me and mine,

I’ll pay you back in leaping flame

And loss of the butchered kine.

You can read the full poem here.

Etymology source.


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