meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to play gooseberry’

The noun gooseberry denotes a round edible yellowish-green or reddish berry with a thin translucent hairy skin and the thorny shrub which bears these berries.

Attested in the first half of the 16th century, it is probably based on Middle-French forms such as grosselle and groiselle (Modern French groseille), perhaps altered because of an unexplained association with the bird. In support of this origin is the existence of dialectal English words such as groser and gozell, from French.

The French name is in turn from an unattested Germanic krusil, related to:
– Middle Dutch kroesel, gooseberry, from kroes, crinkly,
– German Kräuselbeere and Krausbeere, literally crinkly berry, from kraus, crinkly,
the allusion being apparently to the tiny hairs covering the fruit (cf. also Medieval Latin uva crispa, literally curly grape, meaning gooseberry; the scientific name of the gooseberry is Ribes uva-crispa).

The noun gooseberry is used figuratively, especially in to play gooseberry, to denote a third person in the company of two people, especially lovers, who would prefer to be alone.

Its original figurative sense was a chaperone who, while ensuring the correct behaviour of a pair of lovers, facilitated their relationship. This is first recorded in the glossary that James Frederick Palmer (1803-1871) appended to A dialogue in the Devonshire dialect (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1837):

Gubbs, a go-between or gooseberry. ‘To play gooseberry’ is to give a pretext for two young people to be together.

As to the origin of this figurative use, the following passage from Nobody’s Fortune (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1872), by the British journalist and novelist Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831-1894), seems to indicate that obliging chaperones were affecting to be engaged in picking gooseberries as an excuse for keeping out of the lovers’ way as much as possible:

“Not interrupting you, I hope?” said Mr. Womersley, as he came up to Frank. “Not that you haven’t as much time to yourselves as you can possibly wish. I think I play my part in that remarkably well. I am never in the way; and when I am with you, I betake myself to gooseberry picking, or watch the butterflies, with a discretion seldom to be found in an old gentleman so situated. What you can have to talk to each other about the whole long day, I cannot possibly conceive; though I daresay, at one time, I knew as well as the rest.”

Edmund Hodgson Yates expressed the same idea in The Rock Ahead (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1868); Lord Sandilands says to Miles Challoner:

“We shall be driving over to Hardriggs to-morrow, and I should think you might find an opportunity of speaking to the lady in private. I know I would at your time of life, and under the circumstances. And if you want an elderly gooseberry-picker, you may command me”.

A different (but, to my mind, less convincing) explanation is found for example in the Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) of 31st January 1923, where it is said that a gooseberry-picker

has to put up with all the pricks and stings of his unpleasant task in order that others may enjoy the fruits of his toil.
In the same way, the chaperon has to inconvenience herself for pleasures in which she has no part.

The earliest use of gooseberry in the sense of an unwanted third person with a couple that I have found is from Cousin Tom, a story published in The Banffshire Journal (Banff, Banffshire, Scotland) of 20th December 1864:

When we got to the house, we found Rebecca in the library waiting to receive us. As she shook hands with Tom, trembling a little and blushing slightly, she certainly looked charming, and would not have been taken for a day over thirty. To my surprise, Tom’s greeting to her was rather stiff and cool: he dropped her hand after holding it for a moment, and made some trifling remark about the weather. I couldn’t make it out at all. I didn’t want him to have her, but if he was to have her, I should have preferred a little more warmth in his manner towards her. Courting wasn’t done in that way in my time. I couldn’t restrain myself.
“Hang it, Tom,” I exclaimed, “why don’t you kiss her like a man?”
“Kiss her?” said Tom. “Oh, with pleasure, if my fair cousin will allow me.” And positively Tom coloured up as red as a turkey-cock, while he made the weakest, poorest attempt at a kiss that I ever saw.
Tom was bashful, that was it. And it flashed upon me that I, like an idiot, was playing gooseberry. I moved towards the door.
“Well, Tom,” I said, “I’ll leave you for a bit.”


The French equivalent of to play gooseberry is tenir la chandelle, i.e., to hold the candle.

Its origin is not as romantic as that of the English phrase, since it originally referred to someone who watches other persons having sexual intercourse, as the Belgian philologist Auguste Scheler (1819-1890), writing under the pseudonym of Louis de Landes, explained in Glossaire érotique de la langue française (Brussels: Chez tous les libraires, 1861):

Tenir la chandelle.—Employé dans un sens obscène pour assister à l’acte vénérien fait par un autre, sans y prendre part.
To hold the candle.—Used in an obscene sense for: to witness the venereal act performed by another, without taking part in it.

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