Final Word

Internet’s grapevine spoils the picnic


The oldest form of passing on or spreading, if you want, information and messages between people has been getting a ‘bad press’ for the last century and a half at least, saddling it with the mostly derogatory term ‘the grapevine’.

Where and why did it go wrong for ‘word-of-mouth’ as opposed to written communication and why is it named after a plant that gives us a product in a bottle that often renders us incapable of communicating coherently?

First up, let me say that I chose the term ‘bad press’ deliberately because the ‘rumour mill’, implying unreliability of information, is often used as a synonym for ‘the grapevine’. Ironically we journalists will often, when we receive information over the grapevine ‘sanitise’ it by reporting that “rumour has it that …”

Sources differ slightly on some of the details as to the origins of the term, but it is clear that cutting-edge technology developed around the 1840s in the United States screwed it up for ‘word of mouth’. The term started off as ‘grapevine telegraph’, which over time got shortened to just ‘grapevine’.

Yup, the term dates back to the days when the painter and inventor (a sort of modern-day Leonardo da Vinci) Samuel Finley Breese Morse in the mid-1840s developed the first commercial telegraph system between Washington and Baltimore in the US. He was also co-developer of the Morse code.


The word ‘telegraphy’, itself, was by then already known in Europe from the French inventors, the brothers Chappe’s ‘semaphore line’, a device dating back to 1791 for transmitting and receiving messages over long distances. Telegraph, or ‘télégraphe’ in the original French comes from the Greek words ‘tele’, meaning “at a distance” and ‘graphein’, meaning “to write”.

As Morse’s development caught on commercially, electric wires had to be installed over thousands of kilometres, held in place by poles which to many people looked like the strings used to train vines, hence the term ‘grapevine telegraph’, first recorded in a US dictionary in 1852.

Then came the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865, when telegraph networks were hastily constructed, often from tree to tree across battlefields to be used by army intelligence. Not only were messages over these line often confusing or inaccurate but the network was not physically very reliable.

Anyone who needed wire for a quick repair or emergency job, would harvest it from the readily available telegraph wires, similar to the fate of our electricity supply, with copper cables getting stolen.

Enemy forces would also access the network to send false, misleading or contradictory messages. The result was that anything learned through the ‘grapevine’ became regarded as unreliable.

A diary note from 1862, recorded in Major James Connolly’s Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland reads: “We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is, ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not at all reliable.”

‘Informal’ grapevine

In the meantime the term ‘grapevine telegraph’ also got imposed on the often much more reliable informal communication network that existed between the US slave and native American communities.

As one source puts it: “However, it was widely acknowledged that the blacks’ communications network was extremely useful to the Union cause, as John G. Nicolay and John Hay reported in Abraham Lincoln: A History in 1888, calling it ‘one of the most important and reliable sources of knowledge to the Union commanders in the various fields, which later in the war came to be jocosely designated as the grape-vine telegraph’. ”

Unfortunately for the concept of word-of-mouth communication, it is in this sense of the word that the term survived in the modern day lexicon, lending it the reputation of unreliability.

The variant of the ‘grapevine’ also got used in modern times in political strategy. I can personally testify to how it was used some thirty years ago by a minister of finance.

Planning to announce the increase of Value Added Tax (VAT), then still known as ‘Sales Tax’, from 4% to 7% he had word put out via the grapevine that the tax was about to go up to 11%. The purpose was that when the final announcement came the general public would feel relieved rather than angry!

Impact of technology

If you are of the opinion that the upgrading of communication technology from telegraphy to the world of the internet and all its ‘platforms’ is less susceptible to the grapevine phenomenon, you are sadly mistaken.

Just consider the perfectly pleasant idea of having a family picnic and the racism baggage it got saddled with.

In 1998 an e-mail went out in the US under the following covering note: “This e-mail is being sent to you as a public service announcement and as information in the form of a little known Black History Fact. This information can also be found in the African American Archives at the Smithsonian Institute.”

It then goes on to state that: “Although not taught in American learning institutions and literature, it is noted in most Black history professional circles and literature that the origin of the term ‘picnic’ derives from the acts of lynching African-Americans. The word ‘picnic’ is rooted from the whole theme of ‘Pick A Nigger.’ This is where individuals would ‘pic’ a Black person to lynch and make this into a family gathering. There would be music and a ‘picnic.’ (‘Nic’ being the white acronym for ‘nigger.’) Scenes of this were depicted in the movie ‘Rosewood’.”

What is the truth? The word ‘picnic’ comes from 17th-century French and made its first appearance in English around 1800. In the 1692 edition of the Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage the term, ‘pique-nique’ is described as of recent origin.

It seems to come from a combination of ‘piquer’ meaning to pick and ‘nique’, which is of unknown origin. In English it was originally ‘picnic,’ used at one time for a socially fashionable ‘pot-luck’ occasion, very much like the South African tradition of bring and braai.

Be that as it may, the urban myth born out of an ‘internet myth’ lives on in some, especially American, circles to this day.

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by Piet Coetzer

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