Where did the phrase "third degree" (referring to intense interrogation) originate?

Additionally, how did "grill" come to have its related meaning?

  • 4
    Then there's the "fourth degree" - spoken of in hushed tones by those who've witnessed Monty Python's exposure of the horrific interrogation techniques used by the Spanish Inquisition. No-one who's seen this harrowing docudrama would make light of the comfy chair – FumbleFingers Sep 30 '11 at 17:49

Wikipedia has an article on third degree interrogation. Here are its hypotheses as to its origin:

No one knows the origin of the term but there are several hypotheses. [...]

Possible origins

  • The third degree of Freemasonry and the rigorous procedures to advance to that level.
  • The term may have been coined by Richard H. Sylvester, the Chief of Police for Washington, DC. He divided police procedures into the arrest as the first degree, transportation to jail as the second degree, and interrogation as the third degree.
  • The term may have been coined by nineteenth century New York City Police detective Thomas F. Byrnes, perhaps as a pun on his name, as in third degree burns.

As an aside, you may be interested in this popular and related question.

Phrases.org seems more definite about the origin:

In Masonic lodges there are three degrees of membership; the first is called Entered Apprentice, the second Fellowcraft, and the third is master mason. When a candidate receives the third degree in a Masonic lodge, he is subjected to some activities that involve an interrogation and it is more physically challenging than the first two degrees. It is this interrogation that was the source of the name of the US police force's interrogation technique. That is referred to in an 1900 edition of Everybody's Magazine:

"From time to time a prisoner... claims to have had the Third Degree administered to him."

Answers.com and Dictionary.com seem to agree:

third degree
"intense interrogation by police," 1900, probably a reference to Third Degree of master mason in Freemasonry (1772), the conferring of which included an interrogation ceremony.

Grill meaning to subject to severe and persistent cross-examination is a metaphor. Imagine the examinee on a grill, being intensely "cooked" through by the questioning. Etymonline says its first usage in this sense is attested in 1894.

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According to the OED, it's ‘an interrogation of a prisoner by the police involving the infliction of mental or physical suffering in order to bring about a confession or to secure information. originally U.S.’ First recorded in 1880. ‘Third degree’more generally has meanings related to the greatest degree of intensity, so it’s not hard to see how the meaning was transferred to an interrogation.

The first recorded use of ‘grill’ meaning ‘to subject to severe questioning’ is dated 1894. Its use in that sense seems to stem directly from the idea of placing something over a fire, and hence tormenting with heat.

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