What's the meaning of the phrase 'Grub Street'?
Grub Street was a pejorative name for the residence of a class of hack writers and pamphleteers in the Moorfields district of London in the 17th century. Latterly it has been used as a generic term of disparagement for hack journalism.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Grub Street'?
Unlike many place names that appear in English phrases, Grub Street was a real place.
It was located in the London district of Moorfields which in the 1600s was an impoverished and insanitary collection of alleys and courtyards containing doss-houses, gambling dens and the like.
In his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language Samuel Johnson described the place thusly:
Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.
In that quotation Johnson encompassed both meanings of the term Grub Street - both the name for hacks and hack writing and the literal name and location of the street.
There are several books dating from the first half of the 17th century that list Grub Street as the address of the publishers Alsop and Fawcet, for example, the travelogue Fox from the North-west Passage:
London, Printed by B. Alsop and Tho. Fawcet, dwelling in Grubstreet. 1635.
Another classic from the same publishers was a book of quack remedies for the plague - Especiall Observations, And Approved Physicall Rules, 1625. In a pre-echo of the snowstorm of 'cures' for Covid19 pushed by anti-vaxxers in our present day, the book promised:
Soueraigne Antidotes in this dangerous Contagion of the Plague, which haue beene well Tryed and Experienced, in the last heavy and grievous time of the Pestilence.
Amongst the remedies suggested were:
Eate Sorrell steeped in Vinegar. [Quite tasty, why not?]
Take a good quantity of Garlicke and mince it small, and boyle it in new milke, and eate it euery Morning. [Not so sure about that]
Take a Suppositarie made with a little boyled Hunny, and a little fine powder of Salt, and so take it in at the Fundament. [Ouch]
The above, and there are many other like it, no doubt added to the notoriety of Grub Street as the site of the less than reputable parts of the publishing world.
The OED lists the earliest known printed example of Grub Street being used to refer to 'a tribe of mean and needy authors or literary hacks'. That's in John Taylor's Works, 1630. The text is hard to interpret so I'll take it on trust that the OED has deciphered the meaning correctly:
With much discretion and great want of wit,
Leaue all as wisely as it was at first,
I mused much how those things could be done.
When straite a water Tankard answer'd me,
That it was made with a Parenthesis,
With thirteene yards of Kerfie and a halfe,
Made of fine flaxe which grew on Goodwinsands,
Whereby we all perceiu'd the Hernshawes breed,
Being trusted with a charitable doome,
Was neere Bunhill, when strait I might discry,
The Quintescence of Grub street, well distild
Through Cripplegate in a contagious Map.
The respected writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift both clearly detested the hacks and pamphleteers who congregated in Grub Street around 1800. Pope referred to them in disparaging terms no less than six times in his poem The Dunciad. Swift accused them of plagiarism of better writers - himself included, of course - and published a verse advising the hacks to write to Pope and, when they got a reply, to send the results to the publisher Edmund Curll (also no friend of Pope or Swift) to be printed as their own work.
Grub Street must have been quite a difficult place to find. In keeping with the volatile spelling of English place names in the 17th century, Grub Street is variously referred to in print as - Grobstrat, Grobbestrate, Grubbestrate, Grubbestrete, Grubbelane, Grubstrete and Crobbestrate.
You will have an even harder time finding Grub Street now as, although it was a real geographical location, the street was renamed to Milton Street in 1830 and the area has since been comprehensively redeveloped during the 1960/70s as part of the Barbican Estate.
John Milton lived in Grub Street in the early 1600s and might reasonably be assumed that the changing of the name to Milton Street was done in his honour. However, that's not the opinion of the architect and bibliographer James Elmes. In his enormous reference work A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs, 1831, Elmes states:
Grub St., Is now called Milton-street, not after the great poet of that name, as some persons have asserted, but from a respectable builder so called, who has taken the whole street on a repairing lease.
And, if you didn't get it the first time, he repeats:
Milton St., Formerly well known by the anti-poetical name of Grub-street. Its name has been recently changed, not in honour of the author of Paradise Lost, but at the desire of an eminent builder of the name of Milton, who has taken the street on a building lease.
Elmes was prominent in architectural circles and, given that his book was published only a year after the street was renamed, there's every reason to believe that his opinion was correct.
Grub Street may have gone but grubstreet, that is, hack pamphleteering lives on. In fact, in these social-media, blogging, podcasting days when we can all be publishers, it might be said to be in its heyday.