‘a grape on the business’: meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase a grape on the business denotes someone whose presence spoils things for others; an odd person out.

 

ORIGIN: UNKNOWN

 

The origin of the phrase a grape on the business is unknown.

In A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990), Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) suggested that it may be a variant of gooseberry, denoting a third person in the company of two people, especially lovers, who would prefer to be alone—cf. the phrase to play gooseberry.

The following hypothesis is from A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2006), by Eric Partridge and Paul Beale:

Since the grape is usually and rightly regarded as a cheerful influence, ‘grape’ is perhaps a perversion of ‘gripe’: cf. ‘He gives me a pain in the belly’ and ‘bellyful’.

I wonder whether the phrase may be related in some respect to sour grapes 1, which denotes pretended disdain for something one does not or cannot have.

1 The phrase sour grapes originally alluded to the fable of The Fox and the Grapes, ascribed to the Greek storyteller Æsop (6th century BC).

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the Australian-English phrase a grape on the business that I have found:

1-: From “You’re a Character!”, a short story by the Australian author Alan Marshall (1902-1984), published in Smith’s Weekly (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 21st October 1939:

Sam drives fast. He tears round corners, and we all slide together and the girls squeal.
“He’s a character all right,” says my girl.
“He’s jake,” I says. “Just a bit of fun.”
The girl with the flat face says: “Where’s he going? I’ve got to be back early.” She hasn’t got a bloke. She is a grape on the business.
[…]
Sam tries to kiss the girl in front, and Ted’s girl squeals. Ted says: “What’s a squeal or two between friends?” and the girl with me says, “He’s a character!”
“Nice men!” says the sour girl sarcastic like. She hasn’t got a bloke, and is a grape on the business. She has a flat sort of face.
[…]
Ted says: “You girls ain’t sports. That’s the trouble.”
“You thought we was easy,” says the girl that had been with me.
“I didn’t,” I says, thinking about her.
“Let’s be friends,” says Ted.
Flat Face pokes her head round the side. “The only way to be friends with you is to make love to you,” she says. She is a grape on the business, on account of not having a bloke.

2-: From A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens Ltd., 1941), by Sidney John Baker (1912-1976)—as quoted by Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) in A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990):

Grape on the Business, A (of a person) One who is a blue stocking, a wallflower or a drag on cheery company.

3-: From We Were the Rats (Sydney: Angus and Robertson Limited, 1944), by the Australian author and journalist Jack Lawson Glassop (1913-1966):

“Aw gee, Mick, won’t you come? Cliff’ll be away in Sydney with the High School first eleven and I’ve got nobody to go with. All the girls’ll be going with their boy friends and I don’t want to be a grape on the business.”

4-: From The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), by Sidney John Baker (1912-1976):

Lemon avenue, used especially of a female wowser 2 […] and ratbag, an eccentric or sometimes wowserish person, appear to be indigenous. Ratbaggery, for the actions of a ratbag, is a useful extension. […]
Another Australian synonym for wowser is a grape on the business.

2 In Australia and New Zealand, the noun wowser, also Wowser, designates a Puritanical enthusiast or fanatic, especially a determined or fanatical opponent of intoxicating drink. This noun is of unknown origin; in Not to Mention the Kangaroos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1955) [quoted below], Mulaika Corben wrote: “The word is supposed to come from the slogan WE ONLY WANT SOCIAL EVILS REMEDIED”).

5-: From Not to Mention the Kangaroos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1955), by Mulaika Corben:

They [= the Wowsers] are the narrow-minded people responsible for some of Australia’s worst legislation, such as the drinking hours.
In no other country I’ve ever visited have I seen so much staggering drunkenness. It’s not because these people drink more, it’s just because of the restrictions in time. […]
[…]
[…] But there are other idiotic prohibitions introduced by the Wowsers. For example, one can’t buy a bar of toilet soap after six o’clock, either. They have made it a law that no cosmetics are to be sold after that hour, and soap is regarded as a cosmetic. Only within recent times have the authorities revoked the law which forbade Melbourne busses and streetcars to run during church services on Sunday mornings.
Oh, well, as the other Australians explain it, the Wowsers are always “putting a grape on the business,” and Bert and I had been criticized for nothing more than trying to get our babies’ clothes dry. Neither of us believed that the Lord would object to our making such good use of His sunshine on a Sunday.