In a recent CNBC article on Ghislaine Maxwell they say:

Sternheim wrote of Maxwell, who is accused of crimes related to allegedly recruiting and grooming underage girls who later were sexually abused by eccentric investment advisor Jeffrey Epstein,...

Looking up which sense of groom is meant in the article I found the following definition, probably a legal one, in the Cambridge Dictionary:

groom verb [T] (CRIME)

to become friends with a child with the intention of trying to persuade the child to have a sexual relationship.

The above sense does not appear to be related to the more common usage of groom: looking up its origin in the Online Etymological Dictionary provides no clear information on where the above usage may have come from.

So how and when did groom evolved into a criminal act? Is it an AmE usage?

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    As per this journal (On the Origin of Grooming): 'Over 40 years ago, professionals used the terms sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual misuse, and sexual molestation interchangeably, they still do today. The concept of grooming has gained significant popularity in the last two decades'. [...] 'In the service of preserving the historical context of the term grooming, Ken Lanning, one of the first if not the first to use the term, searched back through his files for his use of the term.' Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 9:27
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    @DecapitatedSoul - interesting, but why grooming? Why is grooming associated with the idea of sexual abuse?
    – Gio
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 9:40
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    I could imagine someone grooming a bank employee to take part in fraud; no sex necessarily involved, underage or otherwise. Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 10:10
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    For clarification, 'grooming' doesn't have a primary sense of criminality, but it has one (of meany senses) associated with 'preparing to be a victim' by collocation. It is not a legal term at all.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 19:00
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    @KannE reference? Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 17:32

3 Answers 3


It almost certainly comes from slightly older senses of groom, meaning to tend and prepare.

In the words of the OED, "groom" can mean:

To tend or attend to carefully; to give a neat, tidy, or ‘smart’ appearance to.

and more relevantly:

To prepare as a political candidate; in extended use, to prepare or coach for a career, a sporting contest, etc. Originally U.S.

The former is traced to 1843, and their examples of the latter go back to 1887. The source of this idiom is obviously from grooming a horse, which means to tend, feed, brush, and look after an animal.

The OED has a draft addition under the entry for groom v.

Of a paedophile: to befriend or influence (a child), now esp. via the internet, in preparation for future sexual abuse.

This goes back to 1985:

Chicago Tribune 28 May v. 8/2 These ‘friendly molesters’ become acquainted with their targeted victim.., gaining their trust while secretly grooming the child as a sexual partner.

They don't give a specific description of how the meaning has shifted but it seems reasonable to suppose it has gone from meaning to tend and prepare a horse for use, to meaning to tend and prepare a human being for a purpose.

"groom, v.". OED Online. December 2020. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 17, 2021).

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    "dictionaries note that it's been used for more than a century to mean preparing a successor, or coaching someone for a career or contest" When did groom become dirty bbc.co.uk Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 18:32
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    Given the OED asserts a US origin, it seems the Merriam-Webster definition is relevant here: "to get into readiness for a specific objective". And it's in standard current use e.g. ski slopes and ice rinks are 'groomed' for use.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 19:24
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    @JimmyJames - yes, but I guess there is a considerable difference between preparing for something and preparing for sexual abuse. May be grooming has some nuance about it.
    – Gio
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 19:34
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    @Gio I'm pretty sure 'sexual abuse' is 'something'. If you want to more more precise, it's an 'activity' and 'groom' is typically used to refer to preparing something for an activity. People are 'groomed' for management. Perhaps this usage is primarily US/Canadian English. This doesn't seem mysterious at all to me. Even if the usage hadn't become common, I would understand the meaning.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 20:03
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    "Grooming" itself is neutral - whether it's positive or negative depends on what someone is being groomed for, or for what purpose. Grooming someone for a top slot in a corporation - good, grooming someone to be amenable to sexual manipulation and control - bad. I'm unaware of any nuance about "grooming" that makes it bad. Pretty sure it's the clear negative purpose of some sorts of grooming that makes those sorts of grooming bad.
    – PJB
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 21:14

To answer the final question:

Is it an AmE usage?

No, it's not just North American - it's well understood in Britain as well, without need for any adjective in context (as in your sample).

I have two Oxford dictionaries to hand: ODE (3rd ed, 2010) lists this meaning (as part of the sense to prepare or train someone), though my slightly older SOED (5th ed, 2002) does not.


"Grooming" has multiple meanings. In the context of career, the meaning is metaphorical of improving appearance. In the context of sexual abuse, I believe it is drawn more from that of primate social interaction. Grooming among primates appears to have many functions, including as a prelude to coitus, but all of them relate to social cohesion. So as it relates to sexual abuse, it is any action that establishes or advances the (inappropriate) relationship.

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    This is all well and good but the question is about the history of this usage
    – AakashM
    Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 11:17
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    Aside from not providing sources, and not making explicit connections, this answer provides a brilliant insight into the history of the development of the sense of 'to groom' in question.
    – JEL
    Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 21:09
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    @JEL - yes, a real pity they don't cite any source.
    – Gio
    Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 21:20

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