‘Peter Grievous’: meaning and origin

The humorous name Peter Grievous designates a person who whines or complains.

This name is also used as an adjective meaning fretful, miserable, whining.

In Peter Grievous, Peter is used as a generic forename, and the second element, Grievous, is treated as a surname. Here, the adjective grievous means aggrieved, affected with grief. An obsolete synonym of Peter Grievous was Peter Pitiful.

The following explanations are from Words and Names (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company Inc., 1933), by the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954):

Though John and Jack predominate among personifications, nearly all familiar names have been similarly used at some time or other. Peter grievous, a lachrymose individual, belongs to the class of simple Simon, Johnny raw, etc.

In the texts containing the earliest occurrences of Peter Grievous that I have found, this name is used as a humorous pseudonym by authors of letters published in newspapers. The first two occurrences are as follows:

1-: From a letter to the Printer, published in The Salisbury Journal (Salisbury, Wiltshire, England) of Monday 4th September 1769—the English journalist and politician John Wilkes (1725-1797) was repeatedly expelled from Parliament:

ALTHOUGH the patriotic members who compose the opposition have been extremely active in soliciting petitions all over the kingdom, yet it is surprising how few they have been able to obtain. It is truely [sic] lamentable to observe how fast the laudable spirit of petitioning declines, and how the number of grievances and apprehensions decreases every day, till it has dwindled almost to nothing.
[…] The news-papers confidently assert, that Mr. Wilkes is to get his pardon in less than a fortnight, and be allowed to take his seat. This would be extremely hard upon us, as it would totally deprive us of the satisfaction of complaining, and leave us under the apprehension of having no grievance at all. To prevent which, I would humbly propose that the supporters of the bill of rights, or the committee of grievances and apprehensions, do immediately advertise a premium for the discovery of some new grievance, which may afford the most ample subject of complaint, and serve as the ground-work of petitions yet unborn. I am, Sir,
Your sorrowful Friend, and Fellow Patriot,

2-: From a letter to the Printer, published in The Public Advertiser (London, England) of Tuesday 27th March 1770—the French noun chaise percée, literally pierced chair, denotes a commode (i.e., a chair incorporating a chamber-pot):

As the Westminster Patriots are to have a Meeting on Wednesday next, in order to consider of a Remonstrance; and as our noble Representative Earl Percy is to be in the Chair, I think, with all due Submission, that these Circumstances may afford a very proper Opportunity of bestowing some suitable Appellation upon the Chair; something that shall be expressive of the popular Occasion of the Meeting, and likewise bear some apt and striking Allusion to the Title of the noble Chairman.
I have for sometime been cudgelling my Brains in order to find out a proper Name for this here Chair, and now—I think—I have it hollow.—Suppose it was to be called La Chaise Percee de Westminster. Here we have a fair Opening for paying a Compliment to the Chairman, and the Term Chaise Percee comes as close as could be wished. This Appellation would plainly point out the Name of the Right Honourable Person, who is to fill the Chair on this important Occasion; and besides, the Chaise Percee furnishes the most unbounded Notions of the Freedom and Ease of the Subject; it conveys an Idea of the Seat of Liberty […]. In short the Chaise Percee will bear a very proper Allusion to those fundamental Grievances, of which we Patriots are now straining so hard to relieve the Body Politic, and in which your Paper, Mr. Woodfall, is found to be of singular Use: But this is a posterior Consideration, and therefore I shall wave it for the present, being extremely fearful of giving Offence, and not intending any Wipe at any Person or Thing whatever.
I am, Mr. Printer,
(in perfect Simplicity of Heart, and in the true Spirit of Patriotism)
Yours, &c.
Peter Grievous.

Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), who was, in particular, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, a jurist, an author and a composer, used Peter Grievous as his pen name for a story that was advertised as follows in Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet, Or, The General Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Monday 15th August 1774:

Just Published and to be Sold by
In Market-Street, Philadelphia,
Written in the Year of our Lord 2774 [sic],
By Peter Grievous, Esq; A. B. C. D. E.
Veluti in Speculo.

The Welsh author Hester Lynch Thrale (née Salusbury – 1740/01-1821) wrote in her diary, in August or September 1777, that she suggested the name Peter Grievous as the title of a tragedy:
—from Thraliana: The Diary Of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776–1809 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1942), edited by Katharine C. Balderston:

Cradocke had written a Tragedy a very deep one they said, but he would give it a familiar Name: We’ll call it Peter said he—the Scene was in Russia, at least said I let it be Peter Grievous.

Peter Grievous is apparently a generic name for the aggrieved citizens of Connecticut in the following, published in The Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont) of Monday 16th October 1786—reprinted from “a late Connecticut paper”:

Form of a proposed act in the state of Connecticut.
WHEREAS Peter Grievous, and his associates, inhabitants of Connecticut, have ever lived as nearly obedient to the laws of the land as was absolutely necessary to save them from the whippingpost and pillory, and have been at more pains to obtain property by indirect means, than it has cost others by fair, open, and direct ones to get rich […].
Be it enacted, &c. That the said Peter Grievous, and his associates be, and are hereby exonerated from all claims, debts dues and demands either of a public or private nature; and all suits depending against them are hereby stayed.

The meaning of Peter Grievous is obscure in the following from Corner for the Muses, published in the Greenfield Gazette. A Register of Genuine Federalism (Greenfield, Massachusetts) of Monday 8th April 1799:


BUCK and beau, and belle and beldam,
Seems to me we dance but seldom;
Fopling spruce, and damsel taper,
Let’s convene and have a caper.
[…] Lest we have a scanty ball,
We’ll take in married folks and all.
There’s Peter Grievous with his black wife,
Who ought long since to have had the jack knife,
But they are rich, and cut a dash,
And they shall go because they’ve cash!

I have found an early attributive use of Peter Grievous in On Shaking Hands, by ‘Silas Shakewell’, published in the Poughkeepsie Journal (Poughkeepsie, New York) of Wednesday 27th September 1820—reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts); the adjective subsultory means involving, or characterised by, irregularity of movement:

Mr. Editor—There are few things of more common occurrence than shaking hands […]. It is a subject on which I have myself theorized a good deal, and I beg leave to offer you a few remarks on […] the various forms in which it is exercised.
4th. The cordial grapple is a shake of some interest. It is a hearty boisterous agitation of your friend’s hand, accompanied with moderate pressure, and loud, cheerful exclamations of welcome. It is an excellent travelling shake, and well adapted to make friends. It is indiscriminately performed.
5th. The Peter Grievous touch is opposed to the cordial grapple. It is a pensive, tranquil junction, followed by a mild subsultory motion, a cast down look, and an inarticulate inquiry after your friend’s health.

The earliest occurrence of the variant Peter Grievance that I have found is from The Sale-Room (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Saturday 11th January 1817:

Two or three voices enquired, who was Peter Grievance, and what was he doing below stairs?
“Peter, then,” replied his acquaintance, “since you will have him, is one of those unfortunate beings who have been, during their whole life, (according to their own account) the butt for Injustice and Tyranny to shoot their arrows at; and the lightest misfortunes of his life are those which he ascribes to his own peculiar Evil Luck, unaided by the malice of his brethren of mankind.”

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