Why Do We Say We 'Heard It Through the Grapevine'?

'Psst. You hear about Ed in accounting?'
'Psst. You hear about Ed in accounting?' / CSA-Archive/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

When people want to be circumspect about sharing their source of information, they sometimes say they “heard it through the grapevine.”

“I heard through the grapevine Steve and Betty are getting divorced,” they might say. Or, “I heard through the grapevine that new restaurant is closing.” By the 1960s, the phrase was so entrenched that Marvin Gaye performed a hit song about it. (Which, we heard through the grapevine, was originally recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips.)

What is it with grapevines? Why do we associate them with rumor-mongering communications?

There are a few possible explanations. According to Grunge, the idiom might date back to the development of the telegraph system in the 1800s. In order to send and receive messages, miles of telegraph lines were strung up on poles and knitted throughout the country. Because these lines resembled the lines used to control the growth of grapevines, people began to say they “heard it through the grapevine,” using it as slang for the telegraph system.

The phrase grew in popularity during the Civil War, when communication through the “grapevine” became pressing. But it was also questionable, as Confederate soldiers were known to try and spread misinformation to confuse Union forces. Eventually, it came to mean information through word of mouth that may be of questionable veracity.

One lieutenant, Horace Carpenter, wrote in 1891 of being in a prisoner of war camp for Confederates during the war, where rumors spread of prisoner exchanges that never came to pass: "The ‘grape-vine’ spoke to us of little else. The main feature of this prison telegraph was its complete unreliability. As I remember, it was never correct, even by accident."

Another theory: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people would congregate at The Old Grapevine, a tavern in New York City. Like most bars, rumors and gossip flowed freely, and it was therefore possible to hear something at the Grapevine. While it didn’t invent the phrase, it may have helped popularize it.

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