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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-10-15)

“Engross” is a curious word, one of those that starts from a quite simple meaning and acquires new ones as the years go by.

It derives from a straightforward French phrase, “en gros”, which means “broadly” or “altogether.” The word “gros” on its own has to do with largeness – “big, fat, thick, heavy”, depending on the context – and that matches pretty well its English equivalent, “gross”. Appropriately, perhaps, for a nation of shopkeepers, “gross” also acquired a commercial meaning - twelve dozen (or 144, for those unaccustomed to the quaint old imperial system of weights and measures). An early meaning was “to buy up wholesale” but another was “to copy in large writing … to write in legal form”.

But the only use of “engross” now familiar to us is the expression “to be engrossed” – in a book, for example – and that took a while to get here. Along with the concept of wholesale purchase came the idea of “taking wholly to oneself”, and “to absorb the attention…completely”, and that is how we now understand it. I don’t know the law fraternity well enough to find out about “engrossing a document” (writing it in legal form), but I suspect that it is an obsolete expression, and we are left to be engrossed in our books, our attention completely absorbed.

Among its multiplicity of meanings, “gross” includes “stupid, coarse, sensual, obscene, flagrant, boorish and crass” – not bad for one little word. It has now, according to Chambers, become “N Am colloquial” meaning “disgusting, repulsive.” This usage is by no means confined to North America – young people in South Africa and Australia frequently use it as a term of severe disapproval. Oddly, I have heard it used in Australia to mean the opposite, so that “Gross lippy/sunnies, doll!” is actually a compliment to a young lady’s lipstick or sunglasses; some kind of ironic inversion, I suppose.

To change the subject completely, something new has arisen to irritate me in recent weeks. I regard advertising as the Great Plague of our age: whatever we do, whether we drive, walk about town, read a newspaper, go to a cinema or watch television, we are hectored, cajoled, wheedled and bullied by some huckster selling someone else’s product for financial gain. (The fact that the advertisement is often much more entertaining than the TV programme is no real compliment to advertising).

We have no option but to accept it – there is too much money involved for us to hope for relief – and we have grown accustomed to the absurd tones of hysterical delight with which this or that product is touted. But what annoys me is the unbounded joy of the speaker who says at the end of his piece, “Terms and conditions apply!” – as if that were some kind of added benefit to the potential buyer. All it really means is that you had better be very careful to read the small print before you buy the thing, because the terms and conditions probably invalidate the guarantee.

Another annoying attempt to soften us up by the misuse of language is the expression “toll plaza”, which sounds like a lively and attractive arena where interesting public events take place. All it is in reality is a tollgate where we are detained and relieved of our money to pay for roads which we have already paid for through taxation.

Totally gross, doll. - Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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