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The unusual term gricer is a British informal expression used to refer to:

  • A fanatical railway enthusiast.

The term is a relative recent one (from the '60s) but its origin is unclear. The most accredited assumption is:

  • perhaps a humorous representation of an upper-class pronunciation of grouser ‘grouse-shooter' From (ODO)

probably on the idea of:

  • a supposed plural of grouse on the analogy to mouse/mice

and

  • likening a person who identifies railway locomotives to a sportsman who bags grouse. From (Wiktionary).

Questions:

  • Is there evidence to support the 'original" above cited assumptions?

  • Are there other more plausible stories on which to base the origin of gricer and the verb "to grice".

  • I couldn't find any usage from the '60s, can anyone provide early usage examples?

  • I'll note that there is an old (50s) slang term in the US: "Greaser". It refers to guys who "grease" their hair (use oily hair "tonic"), a categorization which has varied widely in the intervening decades. – Hot Licks May 12 '17 at 21:10
  • Those of us old enough to remember the 'age of steam' on British Railways contunue to use the word 'trainspotters' in the literal sense to refer to the gaggle of school boys (gender-specific) and spotty adolescents found on any day of the week and always during school holidays on railway platforms throughout the UK. Their principal activity was to wait and log in and out by number and/or name the commings & goings of steam trains. This all changed as the age of steam gave way to the age of boring diesel in 1960's. Today, the sobriquet trainspotter is more likely to rerer to a nerdy character – Peter Point May 12 '17 at 23:36
  • Question has been asked before. The Rev Dr Bailey seems to have gotten an answer and disliked it but Railway Magazine charges an absurd amount for access to back issues. The Gricer in Austria bit seems possible but Google doesn't seem to show the book existing. – lly May 16 '17 at 0:57
  • I was at Manchester University in the 60’s and had a friend who was a keen Gricer. I understood that this involved not train spotting, but travelling along railway lines not normally accessible. Trips were organised as brake van trips on lines not used by normal passenger trains. – David Tatam Aug 9 '18 at 21:26
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+100

@RaceYouAnytime already linked the OED entry but omitted the rather pertinent etymology:

Origin uncertain. [Harold Dudley Bowtell reports it] to have been current in 1938 amongst members of the Manchester Locomotive Society... The suggestion that the word is a humorous representation of a ‘received’ pronunciation of grouser... or that it is formed on a humorous plural of grouse... on the basis of the supposed resemblance of train-spotting to grouse-shooting, has been reported several times independently: see Railway World ([June] 1970)... [page] 279, which also gives some other speculative etymologies.

So, yes, it may well predate the '60s in the Midlands trainspotting subculture and just attained greater circulation later. Can't find that issue of RW at the moment, though.

Edit: The OED's Dudley cite isn't online but there is this article on the history of the Manchester Locomotive Society:

Also two members were responsible for introducing a new word into the vocabulary. The word was "gricer". In those pre-war days they were holidaying in the North East [sic] and on 12th August found themselves on the Durham moors in the Consett/Waskerley area. The story goes that two birds were seen (whether they were grouse is not recorded) but as the date was the start of the grouse shooting season it was decided that the plural of grouse was grice. After that the word came into common use for a "cop" or a loco seen for the first time and today it is in the Chambers Dictionary, meaning "a train spotter or railway enthusiast["]... The Dictionary goes on to say that the origin of the word is uncertain but it was two of our founder me[m]bers who coined it.

This German thesis preserves Richard Robson's explanation from a now defunct page for the Hursley Park Model Railway Society:

Why are trainspotters known as 'gricers'? In the mid-1950s, a small party of Manchester railway enthusiasts were tracing the route of along-abandoned mineral line in the bleak Pennine moorland of County Durham. They came upon a shooting party and inquired of one another what they were doing. "Grousing" the shooting party replied in clipped upper-class tones. The railway party replied that they, likewise, were 'gricing', and both went about their ways.

A member of this British railway listserv claimed that afaitk it first showed up in an April Fools' edition of Model Railway News in 1964 or '65. The archive of this British railway listserv claims to have a rather thorough discussion of the origin(s) of gricer, but it requires a Yahoo Groups membership to access. Any takers?

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OED's earliest citation can be found here, which is from 1969.

Well, we've preserved nearly every movable object (steam, that is) on British Railways, but perhaps the greatest unpreserved loss has been the gricer, or full time railway enthusiast.

A few sources seem to indicate that gricers were fond of collecting photographs of the trains they observed, which seems to support the comparison to "grousers" who "bag grouse." It also appears to have been common for gricers to pose naked or without pants in front of the trains they photograph.

The article linked above includes this detail:

Other features of the prototype include the inevitable cameras and tape recorder: with added luxuries such as multi-coloured ball point pens, binoculars, National Health spectacles and army surplus pack.

Dawn Gill interviewed various self-described gricers in the 1990's, and also emphasized the importance of collecting photographic evidence of the trains they spot.

Gricers are perhaps best described as the punks of train-spotting. They are locamotive fans who have added an anti-establishment spin to their pastime by eschewing the mere collecting of electric passenger trains, opting instead to take photographs of the big, sexy diesel engines that thunder along inaccessible freight lines in the dead of night... The trouser-dropping is a ritual; once the gricer is in the depot and has photographed the trains, he often drops his trousers in front of the train while his friend snaps him.

Gricers do not collect numbers, they take photographs, usually of trains in depots after stealthily negotiating the obstacles of security guards and barbed wire in broad daylight. Once inside, dropping trousers or, even better, getting completely naked and climbing inside the cab and being photographed is the accepted way of proving they made it, as well as showing their disdain for those whose job it is to prevent them.

Gricers have albums full of their photographs, hundreds of trains all taken from the same angle... when one gricer agreed to send the Observer some interesting photographs for this article only one featured a semi-naked gricer. The rest were of locomotives.

  • The interesting 1969 article suggests that the term was already in use at that time, so the ' 60s appear to be the decade in which the term was coined. The link between grouse and grice is less clear unless the the upper-class pronounciation has something to do with trainspotters of that time. – user66974 May 13 '17 at 6:48
  • @Josh agree. I suspect without evidence that it was used in clubs and societies like lurs.org.uk/index.htm (founded 1961). I wouldn't be surprised if it predates the 60's, but these are guesses – RaceYouAnytime May 13 '17 at 12:29
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    The dictionary also says that there is an earlier reference for "gricing": "1968 Scarborough Mercury 26 Sept. 1/3 The uninitiated is not likely to know what a 'gricing session' is, but the hardened railway enthusiast will tell you..that it is when enthusiasts go 100 miles or so to capture locomotives forever on a roll of film." – DavePhD May 16 '17 at 11:07
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According to the Guinness Book of World Records 1991 edition, the term "gricer" is after champion train spotter Richard Grice.

Guinness Book of World Records 2000 says:

Most Ardent Train Spotter Bill Curtis from Clacton-on-Sea, England, is the official world-champion train spotter, or "gricer" (a nickname coined in honor of Richard Grice, the first-ever champion, who held the title from 1896 to 1931)

(just passing this along as an alternative theory)

  • Not sure what the obit on the engineer has to do with a trainspotter, let alone one who (allegedly) lived five decades later. – lly May 16 '17 at 0:45
  • As for the second guy, seems a hoax, since there's nothing online and it's just bizarre: official according to whom in 1896? Still, yeah, it's an alternate theory. – lly May 16 '17 at 0:51
  • @JEL Still wouldn't fit here. – lly May 16 '17 at 13:42
  • @lly OK, I'll take out the obit – DavePhD May 16 '17 at 13:55
  • @lly the book says "Riding Yorkshire's Final Steam Trains" says "You can either believe that it emanated from trainspotter Richard Grice, who became legendary for travelling the entire BR network" books.google.com/… – DavePhD May 17 '17 at 13:07
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My late and sorely missed pal Clive Roger Robertson (d 2011) of New Barnet explained to me that he was a gricer and that this did not mean collecting engine-numbers or seeking rides on steam-hauled trains. He had a map of railway-lines in the UK and it was the aim to have travelled the length of each. Some were everyday, passenger lines, others were obscure tracks used for special purposes. He described one such as having been built to serve a steelworks and a landfill, that the former had closed so the line was used only for carrying rubbish. He and other gricers hired a DMU to travel along the remaining part. I have a vague recollection of travelling on the Tube's Circle Line backwards as an achievement, also. His explanation was in the 1980s, so it was in use then.

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