If moral reflection is dialectical, it needs opinions and convictions, however partial and untutored, as ground and grist.

What does the phrase 'ground and grist' mean?

Source: Justice, Michael Sandel

  • The same book got me here -- It's Michael Sandel's Justice. Still no answer though? :( Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 13:33
  • @Markus Gratis I just realized that I forgot to add the source... Oops, I guess that's the reason!
    – Cheng
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 13:56
  • What does the dictionary show "dialectical" and "grist" to mean?
    – user662852
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 15:49
  • 1
    Ground and grist are used figuratively and for alliteration. "Ground" = the basis; grist = that which is to be processed, i.e. opinions and convictions.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 21:29
  • Brings to mind the phrase 'grist for the mill' - name of a book by Ram Dass, also in general means the necessary inputs for a process. By implication, a process that is important or necessary.
    – C.S.
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 15:32

1 Answer 1


Early associations of ground and grist involve ground as a verb (the past tense of grind) and grist as a noun (meaning, in this case, corn—that is, wheat—that has not yet been ground into meal or flour). Thus, for example, from William Browne, Britannia's Pastorals: The First Booke (1625):

But as a Miller hauing ground his grist, / Lets downe his flood-gates with a speedy fall, / And quarring vp the passage therewithall, / The waters swell in spleene, and neuer stay / Till by some cleft they finde another way: / So when her teares were stopt from either eye / Her singults, blubbrings, seem'd to make them flye / Out at her Oyster-mouth and Nose-thrils wide.

The earliest instance that a Google Books search finds for "ground and grist" (with both words functioning as nouns) is from "William Smallman and Thomas Gregory, Appellants v. Humphry Brayne and Richard Walker, Respondents" (1698), reproduced in The English Reports: House of Lords (1677-1865), volume 1 (1900), from Richard Colles, Cases Heard and Determined [by the House of Lords] upon Appeals and Writs of Error, from 1697 to 1713:

The appellant stated that respondents, as lessees of the Bailiffs and Burgesses of Bridgnorth, in the county of Salop, of certain Mills, called Pendaston's Mills, brought their bill in the Exchequer against appellants, to compel them to grind all corn and grain used in their houses at said mills, on pretence of a custom, that all bakers, brewers, residents, Burgesses, and other inhabitants of said town, had used, and of right ought, to grind all corn and grain, spent and used in their houses, at said mills, and not elsewhere; and prayed a discovery of the quantities of corn and grain appellants had so used within the time stated in the Bill; and that appellants might in future be compelled to grind all corn and grain used in their houses at said mills, and appellants, by their answers, denied the custom, and insisted that foreign millers publicly came into town at all times, and carried away the ground and grist of the Burgesses and other inhabitants, time out of mind, to be ground at other mills; and be brought the same back publicly, when ground, without interruption, especially when, by extortions and delays, the inhabitants were ill used at respondents mills; which appellants had frequently been to their great damage.

In this quotation, "the ground and grist" seems to mean something like "both the partially ground corn and the unground corn"; at any rate, I can't think of another meaning of ground as used here that would make sense in the context of carrying away "the ground ... to be ground at other mills."

Dictionary definitions of 'grist' through the years

As for the word grist, it has long had a dual meaning, as John Kersey, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: or, a General English Dictionary (1708) indicates:

Grist, Corn ground or fit for grinding.

Thomas Dyche & William Pardon, A New General English Dictionary (1735) adds a bit more detail to the definition, without, however, altering the basic meaning:

GRIST (S.) Ground Corn, or Grain fit for Grinding ; sometimes it means Profit, Advantage, or Benefit ; as such or such a Thing brings Grist (Benefit or Advantage) to his Mill, or Money into his Pockets.

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), however, breaks with this view, giving no space to the idea of grist as corn already ground:

GRIST. n. s. 1. Corn to be ground. [Examples:] Get grist to the mill to have plenty in store, lest miller lack water. [—] Tusser's Husbandry [1573]. A mighty trade this lusty miller drove; / Much grist from Cambridge to his lot did fall, / And all the corn they us'd at Scholoars-hall. [—] [Chaucer,] Miller of Tromp [i.e., The Reeve's Tale (ca. 1387)] 2. Supply; provision. [Example:] Matter, as wise logicians say, / Cannot without a form subsist; / And form, say I, as well as they, / Must fail, if matter brings no grist. [—] Swift ["The Progress of Beauty," 1719]. 3. GRIST to Mill, is profit, gain. [Example:] The computation of degrees, in all matrimonial causes, is wont to be made according to the rules of that law, because it brings grist to the mill. [—] Ayliffe's Parergon [1726].

Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) has this interesting take on the word:

GRIST, n. 1. Properly, that which is ground ; hence corn ground ; but in common usage, it signifies corn for grinding, or that which is ground at one time ; as much grain as is carried to the mill at one time or the meal it produces. [Quotation from Tusser omitted.] 2. Supply ; provision. Swift. 3. Profy ; gain ; {as in Latin emolumentum, from molo, to grind ;} in the phrase, it brings grist to the mill.

Considering that Tusser seems to have been using grist to refer to "corn to be ground" (as Johnson puts it) in 1573, the basis for Webster's assertion that grist "properly" means only "that which is ground"—and therefore "corn ground"—is unclear to me. Moreover, the wording "that which ground" can be read prospectively ("that which is to be ground") and retrospectively ("that which has been ground"); regrettably, Webster doesn't indicate which of these readings is the correct one.

The 1847 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language—the first edition to emerge after the Merriam brothers purchased ownership rights to Webster's dictionary franchise—simply repeats the 1828 entry for grist, but the 1864 edition substantially overhauls the entry:

Grist, n. 1. That which is ground at one time ; as much grain as is carried to the mill at one time, or the meal it produces. [Quotation from Tusser omitted.] 2. Supply ; provision. Swift.

Although this wording doesn't resolve whether the sense of "that which is ground" is supposed to be "that which is to be ground" or "that which has been ground," it appears in the context of "grain ... carried to the mill," which presumably is grain that hasn't already been completely ground.

Webster's International Dictionary (1890) adds "Ground corn" to the beginning of the crucial first definition, but otherwise retains the 1864 dictionary's wording:

Grist, n. 1. Ground corn; that which is ground at one time ; as much grain as is carried to the mill at one time, or the meal it produces. ...

Webster's New International Dictionary (1909) finally solves the riddle of the "that which is ground" wording—it is both prospective and retrospective:

grist n. 1. Act of grinding. Obs[olete]. 2. Grain to be, or that has been, ground; esp[ecially], as much grain as is carried to the mill at one time, or the meal it produces; hence, supply for an occasion. 3. The material, as ground malt, for a brewing. 4. A lot ; quantity ; as, a grist of bees. Colloq[uial] U.S. all is grist that comes to his mill, all that he has anything to do with is a source of profit. Colloq[uial].

As late as the sixth edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1949), definition 2 of grist from the New International Dictionary remained the primary definition in the Collegiate Series' treatment of the word, the only difference being that the Collegiates omitted the "hence, supply for an occasion" wording at the end of the definition.

Finally, Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary (1963) acknowledged that the "grain to be ground" meaning of grist is older than the "ground grain" meaning:

grist n 1 a : grain or a batch of grain for grinding b : the product obtained from a grist of grain including the flour or meal and the grain offals 2 : something turned to advantage

Webster's Eight Collegiate Dictionary (1973) adds two figurative definitions to the entry:

grist n ... 2 : a required or usual amount 3 : matter of interest or value forming the basis of a story or analysis

but it leaves definitions 1a and 1b untouched—as do the Ninth (1983), Tenth (1993), and Eleventh (2003) Collegiates.

Sandel's use of 'ground and grist'

Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (2009) uses "ground and grist" as paired nouns in the following paragraph:

Plato's point [in the allegory of the cave] is that to grasp the meaning of justice and the nature of the good life, we must rise above the prejudices and routines of everyday life. He is right, I think, but only in part. The claims of the cave must be given their due. If moral reflection is dialectical—if it moves back and forth between the judgments we make in concrete situations and the principles that inform those judgments—it needs opinions and convictions, however partial and untutored, as ground and grist. A philosophy untouched by the shadows on the wall can only yield a sterile utopia.

Even in the context of the whole paragraph of text in which it appears, the meaning of "ground and grist" that Sandel has in mind here is difficult to identify with any confidence. It could mean, in a figurative sense, both the partially processed and the unprocessed grain for future consumption—as it literally did in the 1698 lawsuit reviewed by the House of Lords.

As Dyche & Pardon noted in their 1735 dictionary, the word grist is also strongly associated with an actual English idiom (which "ground and grist" is not)—"grist for the mill." Here is the entry for that idiom in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

grist for the mill Something that can be used to advantage, as in These seemingly useless data will be grist for the mill when he lodges a complaint. This expression alludes to grist, the amount of grain that can be ground at one time. {Late 1500s}

It is not out of the question that Sandel understands ground as something like "basis or foundation" and grist as something like "content or material to be used to advantage" and only coincidentally invokes the same wording that Richard Colles used in 1698. Whatever his intended meaning, Sandel wasn't using a set phrase to express it. A Google Books search finds no matches for "ground and grist" between the 1698 legal case and Sandel's book. The closest example I could find that uses ground and grist in a metaphorical sense is from testimony by General Alexander Haig on March 2, 1978, in Department of Defense Appropriations for 1979: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, part 4 (1978), in which Haig rather oddly yokes "breeding ground" with "grist":

I think it is wholly and totally justified in a changing strategic environment that we do that ["putting such concentration on NATO Europe"], not so much in terms of short-term challenges in war fighting potential, but more importantly to assure confidence among our Allies and ourselves that we are able to deal with the defense of a vital region of Central Europe which controls the gateway to the heart of Europe. Only in such a climate can we expect to work in concert more effectively and I don't think we have done it well so far—to deal with the more likely challenges we will face in Africa, the Middle East, and other areas where Third World dynamics provide the breeding ground and the grist for Soviet interventionism, of the kind manifested today in the Horn of Africa.

I don't think that Haig's juxtaposition of "breeding ground" with "grist" produces a coherent metaphorical image, and the possibility that Sandel's "ground and grist" owes anything to Haig's "the breeding ground and the grist" seems quite remote. Still, I suppose, weirder things have happened.

A Google Books search finds one instance of "ground and grist" in a text published after Sandel's book that doesn't simply quote the earlier book. From Sidonie Smith, "Narratives and Rights: Zlata's Diary and the Circulation of Stories of Suffering Ethnicity," in Geraldine Pratt & ‎Victoria Rosner, The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time (2012):

At this historical moment, human-rights activism remains the primary global project for managing injustice and immiseration around the world, and life stories are at once ground and grist of rights work, rights instrumentalities, and rights discourse. This conjunction of life narration, broadly defined, and contemporary human-rights activism, is indeed, as Kay Schaffer and I argue in Human Rights and Narrated Live: The Ethics of Recognition, a productive and problematic yoking of the decidedly intimate with the global.

Although I can't tell what Smith has in mind by "ground and grist," the phrase does seem to align with Sandel's usage of the phrase. I suspect that Smith read the phrase in Sandel's book and liked the sound of it.


The central problem in making sense of "ground and grist" (understood to mean literally ground and unground grain) as paired nouns is that (according to every dictionary I checked except Samuel Johnson's) grist may refer to either ground grain or unground grain—in which case, why did the 1698 case of Smallman & Gregory v. Brayne & Walker find it necessary to specify carrying away "the ground and grist of the Burgesses and other inhabitants, time out of mind, to be ground at other mills" rather than just "the grist of the Burgesses..."?

I come back to this 1698 instance because it is the only exact antecedent for "ground and grist" that I could find before the instance in Sandel's book. The only other match for the word string as paired nouns involves Alexander Haig's mixed metaphor of "the breeding ground and grist"—and "the breeding ground" is obviously quite different than "the ground."

It may be that Sandel meant "ground and grist" as "foundation or basis [i.e., ground] and matter of interest or value [i.e., grist, definition 3 in the Eleventh Collegiate). But if so, the pairing of the two nouns has no relevant precedent that I could find in various book and newspaper database searches. I am quite confident that "ground and grist" was not an established idiom—or even a moderately widely used set phrase—in English at the time that Sandel put it in his book.

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