Grin and Bear It or Grin and Bare It?

Bearing Bare Bears?

When thinking about bear vs bare, the correct answer is that it’s grin and bear it. But we’re not talking about actual grizzlies here.

The verb “to bear” does come from a similar root as the animal “bear”: bher. It’s a proto-Indo-European word that roughly translates to “dark/brown animal” (possibly used for generally dark animals including beavers). This word comes from around 2500 to 4500 BCE.

But like many words, it split off as language gained more complexity.

The animal became “bero,” in proto-Germanic, while the verb—closely associated with pregnancy—became beranan (to carry). Squeeze it through the wringer that’s the nature of English, sometimes described as five separate languages dressed in a trench coat, and you end up with two identically spelled words again: “bear.”

Etymology is a fascinating subject, and it does pay to understand the words we use regularly. As writers, it literally pays us to understand words.

So Why Is It Often Written Grin and Bare It?

Simple: People hear the phrase and make an assumption. It makes sense in some ways—the idea that you have to bare your teeth and snarl as you’re doing something unpleasant. While this isn’t the most polite way to do a task you don’t want to do, especially if it’s your boss making you do it, it does conjure up a wonderful image.

The problem is that you already have “grin” in there, so the baring of teeth idea is redundant. Indeed, in the 17th century, the phrase “to grin” was a contrast to a cheerful smile: If you were grinning, it wasn’t because you were happy. Typically, the phrase is intended to tell you to be stoic and resolute in the face of adversity, even if your face is unfortunately contorted.

And despite sounding similar, bare comes from a completely different root word, as well: bhoso (naked). This became bazaz, then baer, and finally bare.

Where Does Grin and Bear It Come From?

Like many phrases, it’s hard to pin down exactly when it was first said. The English writer William Hickey used the phrase in his book Memoirs, which was written in the early 19th century and reflected his experiences from 1749 to 1775. In it, he used the phrase “grin and bear it”:

Vexed at his absurd question, and the childishness of his behaviour, I answered, “I recommend you to grin and bear it,” (an expression used by sailors after a long continuance of bad weather).

William Hickey had a lot of experience with sailors: He was sent to the prestigious Westminster School but was essentially expelled (“removed in high disgrace”) after he discovered the joys of drinking and women. He didn’t stop there—he carried on in London living the high life and eventually stole £500 from his father, which was an absolute fortune at that time. He was put on a boat to India, so in protest, he sailed straight back to England via China (which was a bit of a detour). In revenge, his dad sent him to Jamaica. He returned and made his way to Bengal, in the north of India. Eventually, he started practising as a lawyer.

Ironically, his early life wasn’t so much about grinning and bearing it as about being a hellraiser.

His comment about it being an expression used by sailors gives us an indication of how quickly it would have spread. Sailors were usually well-travelled, depositing idiomatic slang around the world. In the same way they spread various diseases, they also spread language. That language would have been used in bars and public houses around the globe and eventually infiltrated its way into modern vernacular.

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather to naturalist Charles Darwin and general all-around genius Francis Galton, used a similar phrase in his book Zoonomia, written between 1794 and 1796. The book was a major work on biology, and it contains significant thoughts on where life came from, including references that all life came from “one living filament” and suggested that the Earth had existed for “millions of ages.”

More importantly, from our perspective, it also contained a similar phrase: grin and abide by it.

Hence when a person is in great pain, the cause of which he cannot remove, he sets his teeth firmly together, or bites some substance between them with great vehemence, as another mode of violent exertion to produce temporary relief. Thus we have a proverb where no help can be had in pain, “to grin and abide;” and the tortures of hell are said to be attended with “gnashing of teeth.”

Sure, this isn’t quite the same, but the meaning of the phrase is identical.

Other Uses of Grin and Bear It

So it’s likely that the phrase originated sometime in the mid-18th-century and was pinned to the page in the early 19th century. Grin and abide by it slipped out of favour, and grin and bear it remained.

The phrase was well enough known by the early 20th century that it was referenced as a pun in the title of a poem by Sam Walter Foss, the first four lines of which are:

No financial throe volcanic
Ever yet was known to scare it;
Never yet was any panic
Scared the firm of Grin and Barrett.

This was published in 1907 in Songs of the Average Man. When a phrase is well enough known that it can be used in a pun and the expectation is that most people will understand what that pun means, it’s a clear indication that it’s in widespread use. Writers were confident their audiences would understand the term.

Use Words Wisely

Of course, the great thing about knowing how words are used is that you can use them and get paid. If you want to expand your writing skills, get great feedback from editors and work on a variety of projects in an environment where you don’t have to grin and bear it, sign up with Crowd Content today.


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Erin is the Community Manager at Crowd Content, and before that was a project manager here for 3 years. She lives in Massachusetts, is a baseball/Red Sox fanatic and loves spending time with her family.

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