Back to the Grind: A History of Grinding


If you’re feeling the slog of being back at work or school after a long, hot summer—and with the holidays still a few months away—you’re not alone. It seems there’s always some kind of grinding to be done, as this history of grinding in all its forms shows.

The first reliable record of people grinding and drinking coffee comes from some time in the 1400s, in Yemen (there is also an account from Ethiopia in the 8th Century, but it’s probably just folklore, which is a shame, as it involves caffeine-buzzed dancing goats). It spread throughout the rest of the world over the next two centuries, but it wasn’t until the Revolutionary War that it gained a foothold in what would soon become the United States, when Americans vowed to give up tea following the Boston Tea Party. Screw you, limeys! We’ve got biscotti!

These days, the technical term for someone who shapes gemstones—through cutting, grinding and polishing—is a lapidary, but the practice is as ancient as humanity itself. The first instances of deliberately shaping stones began about 1.76 million years ago, in the Stone Age. Ancient Egypt evolved the technique sufficiently to deal with harder stones like emerald and amethyst, and by the late 14th century, diamond cutting had become possible in Europe. None of this fascinating history will make you feel any better when you shell out two months’ wages for an engagement ring.

Grinding…An Axe
You’re no doubt familiar with the expression, “having an axe to grind.” But where did it come from? Like many idioms, it has its basis in an actual act, in this case, the literal grinding (that is, sharpening) of an axe. A grindstone was a round, rotating stone disc used to hone the edge of iron tools. And if you’ve ever had someone angrily bang on and on about whatever pet peeve until your patience is worn down to a sliver, you’ll know exactly how those tools felt.

Grinding…In The Club
Grinding has its roots in “whining,” “wining” or “djuking,” a hip-thrusting dance move central to some Caribbean cultures. But it was the move’s adoption by hip hop culture that brought it to mainstream America, and eventually to this delightful Wikipedia entry:

“Grinding…eventually moved on to high school and middle school dances (especially proms) in the US and Canada where there have been cases of administrators attempting to ban it due to its explicit nature.”

They’re not kidding—this article from 2001 evokes just one image: Won’t somebody please think of the children??