This Morning’s Nitpick: The Meaning of the Phrase ‘Sour Grapes’

It's fun to learn things.

Today Steve Blow has a column about Casey Monahan, who has been the director of the Texas Music Office for 25 years. Blow writes:

With a new governor making new hires, next week will be Monahan’s last as director of the Texas Music Office.

But no sour grapes. “Oh, gosh no,” he said. “I mean that sincerely. I don’t feel entitled to this job. If the governor wants to go in a different direction, that’s what he was elected to do.”

Blow could have used the help of a good copy editor. The phrase “sour grapes” here has been misused. As we so often do on this blog, let us consult Bryan Garner. From the indispensable Garner’s Modern American Usage:

“Sour grapes” is one of the most commonly misused idiomatic metaphors. It is not a mere synonym of “envy” or “jealousy.” [Ed: Nor, even more erroneous, of “bitter,” as is the case in Blow’s column.] Rather, as in Aesop’s fable about the fox who wanted the grapes he could not reach, “sour grapes” denotes the human tendency to disparage as undesirable what one really wants but can’t get (or hasn’t gotten).

In Monahan’s case, then, it would only be sour grapes if he’d said something along these lines: “Being the director of the Texas Music Office sucks. I didn’t even want to keep the job.” I issue this correction from my glass house. It is a three-bed, two-bath midcentury modern in East Dallas, and I’m quite comfortable in it.

Newsletter

Get a weekly recap in your inbox every Sunday of our best stories from the week plus a primer for the days ahead.

Find It

Search our directories for...

Dining

Dining

Bars

Bars

Events

Events

Attractions

Attractions

View All

View All

Comments

  • joeptone

    This begs a lot of questions.

    • RAB

      Okay, I didn’t have the benefit of scrolling down before I jumped on JJJ. Mea Cuppa.

  • jameswm

    However, although he misspells it, he consistently uses the idiomatic “to blow” correctly.

    • RAB

      No, he even screws that up, like he’s some kind of homeboy wannabe. (“I bad.”) It’s Blows, Steve, not Blow!

  • Johnyalamo

    For all intensive purposes, this was a good post.

  • JJJ

    Blow has always towed the line on mis-used idioms. I’m sure he’s humbled by your recognition here.

  • Edgar

    Now for a nitpick in your glass house: the placement of the word “only” in the first sentence of your last paragraph. If Monahan had said something along those lines, it would not only be sour grapes. His statement would also be other things (e.g., an example of bad sportmanship, a lie, an utterance from a wounded man worried about his next step in life). I believe Garner recommends placing the word “only” as close as possible to the words it is meant to modify.

  • Bill Marvel

    With a nod to Garner, whose book is always on my desk, how a phrase arose and how it was once used may not govern present usage. The meaning tends to drift with time. The only pertinent question Is, how do Most literate readers understand it now? Everything else is etymology.

    I suggest you get a copy of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” as a useful counterbalance to Garner.

  • heels

    Leading Off has been replaced with daily mocking of poor ol’ steve, and Zac trying to use portmanteau.

    • BrentDude

      Compliment or burn?

  • JJJ

    No problem. I was actually wondering if your comment was even more sarcastic than mine was.

  • Brett Moore
  • Bill Marvel

    I don’t see “Shoot to kill” on that list. That’s always Stage 1 for me.

  • Eric

    What constitutes a “most literate reader”? Is “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” perchance required? Or perhaps The Cat in the Hat?