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How Did ‘Gross’ Become a Term of Disgust?

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The word gross has been in English for hundreds of years. We got it from French, where it means "big" or "fat." It took on a variety of senses in English related to size, including "coarse" (gross grains as opposed to fine), "strikingly obvious" (grosse as a mountaine), and "whole" (gross as opposed to net value). It also picked up negative senses like "vulgar," "crude" (Grose folke of rude affection Dronkerdes. Lubbers, knaues), or "ignorant" (a grosse unlettered people). Uncivilized and indecent behavior was called gross. Low-quality food was called gross. And history is filled with gross abuses, gross misconceptions, gross perfidy, and gross folly. From there it’s not a big jump to the current sense of disgusting. There’s always been something repulsive, or at least unsavory, in the word gross.

Still, “Ew! That is so gross!” has a very modern ring to it. It feels like a very different word from the one they were using 200 years ago. In contrast, a word like disgusting feels essentially the same. So what happened to gross? What separates the gross of today from the gross of the past?

Gross did not undergo a big change in meaning, but it did undergo a big change in context. In the late 20th century, young people started to use it a lot—like, a lot a lot. So much so that old people noticed it, and didn’t like it. As one critic said in a 1971 issue of The Saturday Review, “Gross has always meant something coarse and vulgar. But as used by the teens, it runs the gamut of awfulness from homework to something the cat contributed to ecology.” Gross became slang.

At first, some time in the 1950s, it became an in-group term, one of a number of words (including great, the greatest, the most) that, according to a 1959 article about university slang, were “either complimentary or derogatory depending on how they are said.”

It’s hard to image anyone today using gross in the complimentary way. It’s also strange to learn that, according a 1973 article, grossed out could mean "bored" or "tired" (Bored? Grossed-out? Come to the bistro), or "wild and crazy" (That was a real gross-out party). The early slang meaning of gross was broader than it is now.

The development of the verb form to gross out in the '60s and '70s (probably on analogy with cop out and freak out) helped contribute a sense of newness to the word and made it seem even more slangy. By the '80s it was a staple of “valley girl” speak, so often repeated, mocked, emulated, and imitated that it spread far beyond the teen world it came from. Its sense narrowed into a succinct judgment of visceral disgust, capturing the colorful bodily emotion of “gag me with a spoon” but in a less wordy way. Gross was always there, but young people, needing a more compact package to deliver their disdain, fixed it up and made it grosser.

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Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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