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Growler is a slang term for a large can, pail, or jug of beer, often sold at breweries so that one can purchase beer in bulk and bring it home.

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Searching around for the origin of this term, I've found a few different speculative theories.

The OED offers an attestation from 1888, but provides no etymology.

Wikipedia offers this theory:

It is claimed the sound that the carbon dioxide made when it escaped from the lid as the beer sloshed around sounded like a growl.

Green's Dictionary of Slang offers a few possible explanations, some of which overlap with the others outlined below.

ety. unknown; [perhaps from] the growling, grating noise of the can as it slid, full of beer, across the bar, or the ‘growling’ or grumbling of the children who were sent on the errand, or the drunken arguing that ensued among recipients of the liquor

This article in Thrillist has another possibility.

Although beer was once sold in pints, bartenders would fill a growler with nearly a quart of suds (aka two pints) because there weren't measurement standards in place yet. Often, bartenders and beer drinkers would argue about how much booze should be poured into the pail, and customers would sometimes whine about it like little dogs.

World Wide Words passes along this etymological thoery on the term:

To rush the growler was to take a container to the local bar to buy beer...

Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik argue on the basis of chase the duck that it and rush the growler evoke the image of a hunter sending his dog rushing to fetch downed prey, so that the growler in our expression is the dog. That slang term was then transferred to the can.

BeerNexus.com isn't afraid to offer a speculative theory:

maybe it was the rumble from the workman's hungry stomach at lunch just before the container was opened.

Question

All the theories I can find online seem to be a matter of pure speculation. Can any of these theories be supported or disputed with evidence or historical context? Are there any other possible origins of the term "growler?"

  • I'm interested in hearing the answer to this. Thank you. Also, curious why you consider it a slang term? – Unrelated Sep 21 '17 at 21:06
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    Early usage of gowler: 1883 Trenton (NJ) Times 20 June: - The growler is the latest New York institution. It is a beer can, the legitimate outgrowth of the enforcement of the Sunday liquor law. Young men stand on the sidewalk and drink their beer out of a can, which, as fast as emptied, is sent to be refilled where-ever its bearer can find admittance. It is called the growler because it provokes so much trouble in the scramble after beer. From Quora. – user66974 Sep 21 '17 at 21:42
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    Also: 1884 Forest and Stream (N.Y.) 4 Dec.: ‘Mister, please give me a penny to fill me mother’s growler.* I had six cents and lost one o’ them down a grating, and she’ll beat me if I go home without the beer.’ Originally ‘growler’ was applied by city tramps to the empty fruit caps into which they emptied stale beer from the kegs on the sidewalk. This act was termed ‘working the growler,’ but the word now covers, in low life, any receptacle for beer. – user66974 Sep 21 '17 at 21:45
  • @Unrelated I was simply deferring to the dictionaries. OED calls it "U.S. slang." It's hard to define what is slang and what isn't, and I agree with you that "growler" is common enough to seem like standard English. – RaceYouAnytime Sep 21 '17 at 23:05
  • @RaceYouAnytime I just think its interesting because I would sooner consider it a technical term or at least trade. But maybe trade talk is just slang? – Unrelated Sep 21 '17 at 23:20
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Early dictionary coverage of 'growler'

J.S. Farmer, Americanisms Old & New: A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms (1889) has a note on "rush the growler," with a citation from 1888 that may be the OED's source:

RUSH.—To RUSH THE GROWLER.—Explained by quotation. [Quotation:] One evil of which the inspectors took particular notice was that of the employment by hands in a number of factories of boys and girls, under ten and thirteen years, to fetch beer for them, or in other words TO RUSH THE GROWLER. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children will no doubt be informed in regard to this matter.—New York Herald, July 29, 1888.

Evidently the forced proximity of tender-aged children to demon lager explains the need for intervention by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present has a couple of additional notes on the phrase:

To RUSH (or WORK) THE GROWLER, verb phr. (American workmen's).—See quot. {GROWER =pitcher.} [Quotation—a truncated version of the one cited above—omitted.]

GROWER seems to be a typo for GROWLER in the parenthetical note above. It is interesting that Farmer & Henley identifies the receptacle as a pitcher and not a pail. Also noteworthy here is the attribution of the slang term to American workmen; this removes any probable connection between growler in "rush the growler" to the contemporaneous British slang term growler meaning "a four-wheeled cab" (a meaning that Farmer & Henley covers at some length).

J.M. Hart and other members of the Philological Society of Cincinnati [Ohio] include this brief entry for growler in "Notes from Cincinnati," in Dialect Notes, volume 1 (1890/1896):

growler {as in the Century dictionary, sense 4, and known generally.} To rush or work the growler : to buy beer in a growler; growlering : the business of selling beer by measure. (Doesn't "rushing the growler" also mean "going on a spree"? J.M.H.)

The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, volume 3 (1889) has this entry as sense 4 of growler:

  1. A vessel, as a pitcher, jug, pail, or can, brought by a customer for beer. {Slang, U.S., of unknown origin.}

Early popular discussions of 'growler', some of them illustrated

A fairly lengthy and useful discussion of the phrase appears in "Working the Growler" in Harper's Weekly (April 9, 1892):

It has often been said that slang phrases acquired quick vogue because they were more expressive than ordinary language. In many instances this may be true, but in all probability many of the slang expressions in almost universal use have in them nothing suggestive of the meaning which attaches to them. One of the latter class of phrases is "working the growler." Every one knows what it means, but I have found it impossible to find two persons to agree as to why "working the growler" meant taking beer away from a saloon in a pitcher or other utensil. Those who are usually respected as authorities upon questions of this kind were prompt when consulted in explaining the origin, but none of the explanations seems satisfactory. One said that the phrase originated on the east side of New York [City], where young men would congregate and send one of their number to bring beer. He who had to go was always a growler that the lot should have fallen on him. Another explanation was that these beer-drinkers became cross and quarrelsome over their potations, and the beer being the contributing cause, it got to be called the growler. And still a third said that the expression originated among the tramps who were in the habit of draining the dregs from empty beer barrels into old tomato cans, and then growling at the quality of the liquor. One gentleman insisted that the term was of English origin; but the only growler I can get trace of England is the lumbering four-wheel cab, which in the popular language in London is always called a growler. ... But however the expression arose, the custom is a very general one in those parts of American cities a little away from fashionable precincts. Indeed the bar rooms and beer saloons have made special arrangements for a "growler" business, and there are little side door compartments into which women and children can go and wait till their pitchers are filled with beer.

A nice illustration accompanying the article shows a boy, pitcher in hands, working the growler.

Further confirmation that growler referred, at least initially, to a pitcher comes from Ernest Pierson, A Vagabond's Honor: A Romance (1889):

"I'm sorry I have no refreshments to offer ye," said Mr. Fogarty, looking hard at his youngest born as if in doubt whether to offer it to me grilled or on toast. "I might send Dinnis out with the growler if yes could fancy a glass of ale."

...

The "growler," a huge stone pitcher, almost as large as the boy, was dragged out of a corner, and Dinnis was dismissed with a parting admonition to "kape yer nose out o' the foam and tell Grogan to give good measure, because it's for a sick man."

But a pitcher clearly wasn't the only possible receptacle to use in working or rushing the growler. From "The Blue Pencil Club," Judge's Serials number 5 (October 1888):

"...You will appreciate the depths to which I have fallen, if I ask in regard to a tin pail, or a water pitcher, or any vessel capable of containing a liquid which might be sent out under the appellation of a growler, for talking is dry work."

The accompanying illustration in this article shows what is unmistakably a tin pail.

From Wallace Peck, "The Two Growlers," in Life magazine (June 10, 1886):

ART thou, pet growler of Gambrinus,/ Thus stowed away/ In couch of clay?/ ... This is the witching moment of the treat,/ And yonder pitcher's due adown the street;/ Yet we've not heart to rouse thee, black-and-tan;/ This once we'll "work the growler" with a can.

The included illustration shows a puppy (the "pet growler of Gambrinus") asleep in an empty pitcher. A footnote after the quoted phrase "work the growler" says, "An A. D., 1886, slang expression more or less understood in lat. 41, long. 74." The poem suggests that pitchers were the preferred receptacle for beer transport, at least among topers of a certain class, much as many beer drinkers today prefer their drink to be sold in glass bottles rather than in aluminum cans.

From "His Prayer Answered," in [New York] Puck (June 22, 1887):

At misfortune I am not a Carping scowler;/ But I'd like a sparkling, foaming Brimful growler./ Then the poet heard a restless Sort of whining;/ And upon his legs the farmer's Dog was dining./ And the poet then became a lively howler;/But he got his only wish—he Got the growler.

This is the same joke as in the Life magazine poem: growler as pitcher of beer is juxtaposed with growler as dog.

Lest I leave the impression that growler originally and unequivocally referred to a pitcher, I should emphasize that instances specifying a tin pail as a growler are also quite old. From "John Coppertug's Fall," in [New York] Puck (October 29, 1884):

The cheery light also fell on the happy faces of the children at play on the floor. It gleamed on the polished sides of the tin growler which stood, half emptied, on the table.

And in a followup piece, "John Coppertug's " in [New York] Puck (November 5, 1884):

"Please, sir, will you fill my mother's growler?"

Why did John Coppertug start when he heard these words? They were uttered by a golden-haired child—his own child. Well did he know the tin pail she placed on the bar. It was the growler, the sacred growler of happier days.

So if usage originally applied the term growler to pitchers, it very quickly (by 1884) expanded to apply also to tin pails.

Similarly, a tin pail appears in "The Growler Club," in Jingo (November 12, 1884):

“BOYS,” said Prinker last night, as he assumed his regular position against the awning-post and passed the growler to Buttsy, "I've been a tinkin' de madder over, an I've come to de conclusion dat I am de friend of de workingman."

...

"Beer! Beer!" came in gurgling accents from Baldy Joe, as he placed the old tin pail with a ringingly empty sound upon the coal-box.

Taking this as a sign of assent, Prinker tossed a dime into the growler, which directly disappeared in the direction of Clancy's in charge of a red-headed member, called Hoddie, ...


The 'New York Sun' on 'growler' and 'working the growler', 1883–1884

Many of the earliest matches for growler that I've been able to find are from the New York Sun, a newspaper that ran at least eighteen articles related to the subject during the period 1883–1884. Here are seven of them.

From "A Row Over the Growler," in the [New York] Sun (June 18, 1883):

A sidewalk beer picnic is a name given to a popular form of amusement in some of the crowded parts of the city. A crowd of young men provide themselves with a pitcher or can, and, having selected an eligible coal box or similar lounging place in front of a closed store, fill and empty the pitcher as long as they can buy the beer. This is known as "working the growler," the beer can having earned the appellation of growler from a long record of quarrels fomented under its influence.

From "Lillis Accused of Murder," in the [New York] Sun (July 30, 1883):

For six months past, so the neighbors say, a gang of young men have hung around the corners of Canal, Watts, and Hudson streets. By night they "worked the growler." What they worked by day or whether they worked at all or not the neighbors cannot say. "Working the growler" is sitting around on a truck or a lot of beer barrels or anything and passing a pail of beer around until it is empty. Then the most accommodating of the gang or the easiest bullied, or the best provided for money goes for more beer. The pail is the growler.

From "Trying Heck for the Forsyth Street Murder," in the [New York] Sun (February 12, 1884):

Charles F. Heck is on trial, in Oyer and Terminer, for the murder of William Staminger in front of 204 Forsyth street, on the night of Sept. 30 last. The testimony given for the prosecution yesterday was that four men were sitting on a truck from 8 o'clock until after midnight, working the growler, or, in other words, drinking beer from a tin pail, when the prisoner, who was disturbed by their noises, went from his room at 204 and remonstrated with them. They pushed him against a window of a lager beer saloon, which was broken, and then a shot was fired.

From "Little Pint Pot Robbers," in the [New York] Sun (March 13, 1884):

Brady was sullen, and merely said, in answer to all questions, "I ain't sayin' nuthin'. No flies don't light on me, an' don't yer ferget it."

Lynch, the smallest and best-looking boy, said tearfully, "I went fer beer fer de boys. We calls it workin' de growler. I didn't take any tomatuses.

From "Mayor Timken Aroused: Oceana Hose's Boys Have Blow Out, with Unlimited Quantities of Beer," in the [New York] Sun (May 29, 1884), quoting a communication to the Common Council from Mayor Timken of Hoboken, New Jersey:

This [fire department] company on Saturday last, had a grand celebration which was continued up to 4 o'clock, Sunday morning. The neighbors complained the at the noise made was deafening. Unlimited quantities of beer found their way into this and other houses by the process known as "working the growler."

From "Working the Growler," in the [New York] Sun (September 8, 1884):

TO THE EDITOR OF THE SUN—Sir: Please oblige an inquisitive reader by describing the process of "working the growler." —INQUIRER

The essentials of this "process" are a tin pail or growler, beer to fill it, and a gang to sit around—generally outdoors—and empty it, passing it from hand to hand. Crime is merely incidental.

From "Gang Rule in New York," in the [New York] Sun (September 15, 1884):

The growler is worked out of a pewter pitcher, usually in front of a stable yard into which the band scatters when they are chased. Several frightful affrays have occurred in Hand Cart Row.

This last article repeatedly treats "working the growler" as a central activity of criminal gangs on New York City's east side. In most of its articles, the Sun makes every effort to treat using a growler as a particular practice of heavy public drinking by gang members who support their lifestyle with criminal activity. But it seems clear that a growler could also be used by an upstanding citizen to fetch a single measure of beer for private consumption.

Because the Sun's coverage has aspects of a crusader's devotion to exposing a virulent evil, it is difficult to know how unbiased the reporting was. Still, at the very least, the Sun deserves credit for making growler its readers couldn't fail to be familiar with by the end of 1884.


Other early instances of 'growler' in the relevant slang sense

A number of other instances of growler in its slang sense appear before 1888. Here are some of the ones I found, in chronological order.

The earliest match I found is something of a curiosity. It appears in a "Christmas Carol"-like piece of fiction titled "A Strange Land," in the [Grand Rapids, Wisconsin] Wood County Reporter (March 17, 1881), credited to "Zach Hickory," a narrator given to unexplained slang terms and phrases such as "boodle racket," "strike a picnic," and "I'm your oyster":

"Rash mortal!" said the spirit; "I was flying through the air and heard thy complaints against toil. If thou art weary come with me and rest!"

"Well, you're a brick, after all," I replied. "Put it there; and if you will take a seat for a few moments I will rush the growler."

From "Rushing the Growler," in the Daily Wabash [Indiana] Express (October 4, 1884):

"What do the boys mean when they say they have been 'rushing the growler?'" a father asked of an Express reporter yesterday. "My boys, when they come in late, tell me they have been 'rushing the growler.' Has it anything to do with the campaign?"

Poor, innocent old man. When the boys want to "rush the growler," they get a mug, send one of their number after beer, and sit down in a secluded place and drink to their heart's content.

From an untitled item in the [Woodsfield, Ohio] Spirit of Democracy (November 25, 1884:

The latest city slang is "working the growler." The "growler" is the tin-can in which workingmen get their beer, and it is "worked" when it is passing from keg to keg or from lip to lip. The phrase originated this way: Women visiting bar-rooms to get their beer in pitchers or pails by the pint or quart, as the case may be, have been in such a habit of grumbling over the "measure" given them, that some bar tender accidentally called the pitcher or pail "the growler." All bar-tenders took it up, drinkers accepted it, and the result is the expression "working the growler."

From Willim De Vere, "The Growler Club," in Wit, Humor, Pathos and Parodies (1885):

We mildly acquiesced, tumbled into bed, went to sleep and dreamed that we were turned into a big tin growler, and was sitting beneath the fountain in the park, which was spouting lager beer, while beer kegs with wings on were flying around us.

From the From "How Chicago Is Regenerated by High License," in The Reason: A Journal of Prohibition (March 1886):

The neighbors are generally instructed in the "open sesame" which obtains admittance, and stragglers with pitchers and tin pails are regular visitants to the side door, conveying beer too the orgies in the adjacent shanties and tenements. This is the pleasing process technically known as "working the can" or "rushing the growler." Experience has demonstrated that a very diminutive boy can, in the small hours of the morning, "rush" a particularly large "growler" and cause a considerable amount of inebriety in the sanctity of the domestic hearth.

From an analysis by F.W. Barrett of the cost of alcoholic beverages to U.S. consumers, reproduced in Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey for the Year Ending October 31st, 1886 (1886):

In densely populated districts the retailer of beer has hard work to get cost. "Working the growler," literally means that the poorer classes of consumers get beer at the wholesale price.


Conclusions

Google Books and Elephind searches turn up instances of growler in the sense of "vessel for carrying a quantity of beer from a keg" from as early as 1881. The New York Sun's breathless coverage of "gangs" engaged in what sounds a lot like football stadium tailgate parties definitely spread awareness of the term growler and the expression "work the growler" to the newspaper-reading classes of New York City in 1883 and after.

The source of the term remains unknown. Many early sources attempted explanations based on convenient stories, but none of them seem very plausible. It is true that growler in a more or less literal sense shows up in the 1870s and 1880s as a synonym for "grumbler or malcontent"—but that isn't much to go on. Ultimately, the hypotheses that writers of the 1880s offer regarding the origin of the term are chiefly useful in confirming that from a very early date people didn't know why growler referred to an improvised receptacle for transporting beer.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) asserts with unbounded confidence that

Sense 4 ["A pail or other container used for carrying beer, especially a half-gallon or gallon glass jug with a gasket or screw cap" derives from] the sound made by carbon dioxide escaping from under the lids of metal pails in which beer was carried in the past.

but it seems odd that not one of the dozens of references to growlers from the 1880s that I looked at mention the filled pails making any sound at all. Moreover, it is by no means clear that the earliest vessels that growler referred to were tin pails; Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870–1920 (1999) provides an excellent description of "the growler trade," and says that a growler was defined as

a "bucket, can, pitcher, or other large contained used to carry beer home from a saloon."

Most of those receptacles don't growl. I'm inclined to think that if there isn't an etymological connection between growler and an unidentified word from another language for a pitcher, pail, can or bucket, we may be dealing with a term whose source is unfindable.

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Sven Yargs has done a very thorough job showing early examples of "growler," in the sense of a beer receptacle. And although a few of the early reports suggesting a possible connection to the earlier sense of "growler" as a "grumbler or malcontent" seem plausible, the connection is not certain.

I'll throw out one more plausible connection suggested by some other early sources, but which is also admittedly uncertain. Is there a connection to a "blind tiger"? A tiger growls - is that where the name comes from?

Attempts to regulate the consumption or sale of alcohol spawned numerous schemes to skirt the literal text of the laws. For example, the "striped pig" started in Massachusetts the 1830s. A seller would charge admission to see a "striped pig," and serve alcohol for free, thereby avoiding being charged with "selling alcohol." Decades later, similar schemes would be known as a "blind pig." The earliest "blind pigs" differed from the earlier "striped pit" exhibitions, however, in that a "blind pig" placed a barrier between the buyer and seller, so that the buyer was "blind" as to the seller's identity, and no one could issue a warrant for the seller's arrest.

In the interim, similar liquor law-avoidance schemes became known as the "blind tiger." They were known in Tennessee as early as the 1850s, and pop up in the literature regularly thereafter, primarily in the South.

A description of a "blind tiger" from 1882 illustrates the arrangement:

". . . the back wall has something built into it resembling a trough, about twenty-four inches long and six inches deep. You approach this trough, which is kind of a blind dummy, and call one, two three, or as many drinks as you wish and the same time placing the equivalent in the trough, a hand appears, takes the money, and in place is a decanter and as many glasses as there are drinks paid for. The imbibers, therefore, depart, only seeing a man's hand, and, so far, no one has been able to inform on the dispenser of the beverage. This establishment is what is known in the surrounding country as the blind tiger, and the officials of the law have puzzled their brains how to bring the tiger to bay."

The Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama), April 27, 1882, page 4 (reprint of an article from the Nashville American, about a "blind tiger" in Guntersville, Alabama).

A newspaper in Philadelphia wondered about a connection in 1886:

"Can it be that the Atlanta "blind tiger" is in any way related to the "growler," an animal well known and much patronized by bibulous Northerners?"

The Times (Philadelphia), July 22, 1886, page 2.

A newspaper in Brooklyn made a similar observation a few days later, also treating "growler" as a reference to the establishment, as opposed to the receptacle:

"A new element has entered into the life of the modern Georgian. It is somewhat vaguely called the "blind tiger." In the early days of the Maine Prohibitory law it went by the name of the "striped pig." Hereabouts it is recognized by the more euphonious title of "the growler." A man who does not know what it is to "work the growler" has missed one of the most fascinating experiences that can befall the thirsty traveler through this "walley of shadders.""

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 25, 1886, page 8.

These articles were written shortly after a "blind tiger" in Atlanta was widely reported in the Eastern and Northern press, where the term "blind tiger" does not appear to have been well known. It is interesting that both articles treat the term "growler" as referring to the establishment selling the beer, as opposed to the receptacle, as was the case in other references; all of which raises more questions than it answers.

Were these writers mistaken? Were the other articles mistaken about the origin and original meaning of the phrase? Was "growler" ambiguous, even from the beginning? Was the receptacle named for the place from which it received beer, or was the place selling beer named for the receptacle? Does "working the growler" refer to working the sellers to get the beer, or to working the receptacle to drink the beer?

These are all questions to which we may never know the answer. But the obvious connection between "blind tiger" and "growler" makes a connection seem plausible.

But reading through several contemporary discussions of liquor law issues and the liquor business in New York City and Brooklyn in the early 1880s, I could find no reference to any sort of scheme precisely like a "blind tiger" or "blind pig." There were, however, unlicensed shops and shops that sold liquor on Sundays, or places licensed to sell by the glass who would also illegally sell in bulk on the side. So even if "blind tiger" and "growler" are not the same, they both skirted the local licensing laws, which may have been similar enough to suggest "growler," from "blind tiger," for the shops.

It may also be noteworthy that the suggestion of "growler" as a "blind tiger" did not show up in the press for three years after "growler" first appeared. But people in the liquor business might nevertheless been familiar with "blind tiger" even though newspaper reporters and the general public were not familiar with the term.

Is it a stretch? Maybe. Is it plausible - I think so. You be the judge.

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