Various American grape varieties are commonly called "fox grapes".

I was under the impression that this term originated from the term "foxy" to describe the aroma of wines produced from these grapes, alluding to the musky scent of the animal (fox). However, the Wikipedia page indicates that the derivation goes the other way, where "foxy" in wine terms describes the characteristic aroma of wines from "fox grapes", and is not directly connected to the animal.

Is there any reliable evidence for the origin of the term "fox grape"?


As with many etymologies, the origins aren't necessarily clear.

Thomas Pinney in the book A History of Wine in America gives several possible explanations, breaking them into categories

  • Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes - he directly dismisses this as being fanciful

  • "fox" does not refer to the animal, but instead to "wild", "intoxicated" or a corruption of the French word "faux"

  • "fox" refers to the appearance of the leaves, either because they look like fox paws or because they have fox-colored fuzz.

  • Animals (specifically foxes) are attracted to them, either because they like to eat them, or are attracted to the smell.

  • The grape has a musky odor like a fox.

Of all the origins, most are only attested in a small number of sources that Pinney can find, or are of a relatively recent origin (ca. 1900 or later) despite the term "fox grape" being attested back to the early 1600s.

Of the proffered origins, it's only that of the musky odor being like a fox that has multiple sources which date back to the mid 1600s, so it may be that it is indeed the origin of the term "fox grape", even though "foxy", when applied to wine, derives from the name of the grape, rather than the odor directly.

Nothing is certain, though, as Pinney references Liberty Hyde Bailey's Sketch of the Evolution of Our Native Fruits which posits that the term "fox grape" could ultimately be from another source (e.g. "intoxicated"), which was then folk etymologied into "smelling like a fox" at a slightly later date.

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  • I've always understood that slightly foxed originally applied to the presence of blotchy mould patches on old books bindings - a matter of appearance rather than a musty smell. But even in my childhood 50 years ago it was often used of stale-smelling clothes (or more metaphorical & jocular, sweaty feet). – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '17 at 18:15
  • I never heard of fox grapes, but might they not have blotches? I'm thinking of something like the noble rot on grapes used to make some dessert wines. – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '17 at 18:21

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