Listening to the commentary of the Sri Lanka v England Test match this morning, (for those not in the know, it is a cricket match played over 5 days). I was informed that the contest in Sri Lanka was gruelling. I confess that from my favourite chair I couldn’t quite see how sunny Sri Lanka managed to gruel, but gruel it apparently did.
Gruel is one of those odd words, like ailing, that exists only as a participle. This should be not be so. Too few conversations go:
Bill: How was the atmosphere at the bar last night?
Ben: Oh it gruelled.
Bill: Really? Did it gruel an awful lot?
Ben: More than I can say, old boy, more than I can say.
Why is so much gruelling when so little gruels, and how does this all relate to broth?
When gruel began its career as an English word, back in the fourteenth century it was content to simply mean flour. From there it began to mean soup made with flour, which was probably a lot tastier than it sounds. Here’s a 1688 definition:
Grewel, is a kind of Broth made only of Water, Grotes brused and Currans, some add Mace, sweet Herbs, Butter and Eggs and Sugar
Delicious. If the contest in Sri Lanka was so well spiced and so eggy, I am sure that the cricket would be wonderful. But this is not so, for gruel came to be part of a phrase, a phrase that can be best illustrated by this little snippet from the eleventh canto of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. Juan has just been attacked by highwaymen on the way to London. He whips out a pistol and shoots the brigand and…
...Juan, who saw the moon’s late minion bleed
As if his veins would pour out his existence,
Stood calling out for bandages and lint,
And wish’d he had been less hasty with his flint…
But ere they could perform this pious duty,
The dying man cried, “Hold! I’ve got my gruel!
Oh for a glass of max! We’ve miss’d our booty;
Let me die where I am!” And as the fuel
Of life shrunk in his heart, and thick and sooty
The drops fell from his death-wound, and he drew ill
His breath, — he from his swelling throat untied
A kerchief, crying, “Give Sal that!” — and died.
To get your gruel is to get your just deserts, to take what’s coming to you or, like a feral gardener, to make your bed and lie in it. And from this sense of gruel as a punishment, came the modern sense of a gruelling contest.
Though I still can’t see how Sri Lanka in November can gruel that much.