Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Against The Grain

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 7, 2010

If something you say or do goes against the grain, what it means is that it’s not what you would usually say or do and it displeases you to have to say or do it.   This idiom has its roots in natural science and refers to the natural direction of the fibers in a piece of wood, called its grain.   When wood is sawed obliquely, or “against the grain,” the wood tends to splinter. 

In 1873, Francois Pierre G. Guizot wrote and published “The History of France From Earliest Times to the Year 1789.”  On page 450, the author recounts a story that allegedly happened between Louis XI of France and Edward IV of England in 1474.  The author writes:

“Tell your master,” answered Louis coolly, “that I should not advise him to.”  Next year the herald returned to tell Louis that the king of England, on the point of embarking, called upon him to give up to him the kingdom of France.  Louis had a conversation with the herald.  “Your king,” said he, “is undertaking this war against his own grain at the solicitation of the duke of Burgundy; he would do much better to live in peace with me instead of devoting himself to allies who cannot but compromise him without doing him any service;” and he had three hundred golden crowns presented to the herald, a promise of considerably more if peace were made.

While it can neither be confirmed nor denied that such a conversation took place, one can state that, without doubt, the phrase “against the grain” was used in the late 1800s.

An earlier reference is found when fictional character Tristam Shandy, son of Walter Shandy and Elizabeth Mollineux, created by Laurence Stern, said:

The fact was this, That in the latter end of September 1717, which was the year before I was born, my mother having carried my father up to town much against the grain, by marriage-articles, to have my nose squeez’d as flat to my face, as if the destinies had actually spun me without one.

Although the 18th century fictional novel was written in 1759, the ease with which the phrase is used indicates that the phrase was part of every day language by that time.  In 1650, Thomas Hubbert wrote “A Pill To Purge Formality” where he used the phrase as well.

O this goes against the grain, this cannot be indured.

However, in the end, it was William Shakespeare who was responsible for the phrase, against the grain.  Shakespeare first wrote the phrase in his 1608 play, Coriolanus. In it, the character Sicinius, speaking with Brutus, says:

SICINIUS:
Say, you chose him
More after our commandment than as guided
By your own true affections, and that your minds,
Preoccupied with what you rather must do
Than what you should, made you against the grain
To voice him consul: lay the fault on us.

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