CLOSE
iStock
iStock

How Did ‘Gross’ Become a Term of Disgust?

iStock
iStock

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
iStock
iStock

Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios