Q From Lewis Lawrence: Can you tell me where the phrase grass roots comes from, as in ‘This project needs some grass roots involvement if it is to succeed’?
A In the sense of the rank-and-file membership of an organisation, especially a political party, the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary records it first from McClure’s Magazine of July 1912: “From the Roosevelt standpoint, especially, it was a campaign from the ‘grass roots up’. The voter was the thing.” Searches of electronic databases not available to the compilers of the entry in the 1960s suggest that this is pretty much spot-on. The initial sightings of the phrase all refer to the unsuccessful 1912 presidential campaign by former president Teddy Roosevelt against Woodrow Wilson. I have found it from a little earlier that year in the Evening News of Ada, Oklahoma, dated 26 January: “The Roosevelt Sentiment, as cropping out at Coalgate, was but the forerunner, as it was plain to him, he said, that the grass roots were for the ex-president”. It looks as though it was coined by Roosevelt or somebody on his campaign team.
In its literal meaning the expression had by then been around for two centuries at least. It had also begun to appear at the start of the twentieth century in a related sense of the source or origin of something or of its fundamentals. Rudyard Kipling is the first writer recorded as using it, in his novel Kim of 1901: “Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Course of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil.”
It’s interesting that the US political examples in the papers of the time were paralleled by others referring to gold mining. A proverbial saying to describe an especially rich strike had it that the site was “gold from the grass roots down”. As well as examples in newspapers, it turns up also in Jack London’s book Burning Daylight of 1910: “She’s a-coming, fellows, gold from the grass roots down, a hundred dollars to the pan, and a stampede in from the Outside fifty thousand strong”, and in a poem by Robert W Service called The Cow-Juice Cure.
It’s impossible to say to what extent this influenced the creation of the political sense. Some writers of the period talked about the need to go “down to the grass roots” to gain support for policies, which suggests that the “fundamentals” sense might also have been in the minds of its coiners.