When I was young, I was terrible at spelling. I’m still not a great speller, but I’m okay. Technology has been very good for people like me. I don’t make many meaning mistakes like mixing up “beat” and “beet.” Generally, if I make a mistake it’s a big one. One that still drives me create is “knowledgeable.” It’s only been quite recently that I’ve managed to consistently throw in that final “e.” The truth is that it still doesn’t make a lot of sense of to me. Why not knowledgable? Anyway, I tell you this only so that you won’t think too lowly of me when I admit that I was 19 years old when I learned how to spell “grateful.”
I’m pretty sure it was because I saw a poster for The Grateful Dead. But it might also have been that I noticed a sign for The Grateful Bagel. Regardless, I thought, “That’s got to be wrong.” So I did what I’ve found to be very unusual in our culture: I got out a dictionary and I looked it up. And sure enough, grateful was the right spelling: “appreciative of benefits received.” It turns out that “greatful” isn’t even in the dictionary.
But that’s as far as I took it. In those days, it didn’t occur to be to dig deeper. It didn’t even occur to me that it was odd that it was spelled that way. In those days, English spelling was a mystery. There was no sense to it, so it could have been spelled ghoti, and I wouldn’t have given it any more thought.
Today, however, the question did occur to me. And this is the first time that I really gave the word’s meaning any thought. It couldn’t be “greatful.” The “ful” suffix indicates, more or less, “filled with.” And “grateful” doesn’t mean “filled with great.” If you want to put it that way, you would say, “filled with gratitude.” And that gets us pretty close to the reason that we spell the word “grateful.”
Latin: It’s Always the Latin
According to the Oxford Dictionary, “grateful” from the middle of the 16th century. That was when we had long gone version of the word “grate.” It meant pleasing or thankful. And, as usual, it came from a Latin word, gratus. According to my Latin dictionary, it means “beloved, dear, acceptable, pleasing, agreeable.” It gives as an example, “O! Diva gratum quæ regis Antium.” It is by Horace (so much Latin that is quoted is by him), in his Odes, Volume 1, Poem 35. And it means, “Oh! Goddess who reigns over your own loved Antrium.” Maybe.
The main thing is that the word sounds like “great” but that doesn’t mean anything. “Gateful” also sounds like “grate,” which has two modern definitions, First is: “to have an irritating effect.” And second is: “to break into small pieces by rubbing against something rough.” Both of those words come to use via Germany. It is from the word kratzen, which means “to scratch.”
From Youtube: Grateful Dead – Casey Jones 1971.
Why Not Greatful?
But there is a possible use of the word “greatful.” Maybe this is just another example of how Trump is torturing me. But in that construction, the meaning would be “filled with great.” Now that doesn’t quite work. The –ful suffix is normally attached to a noun. But we could stretch it to mean, “filled with greatness.” So we might say, “In his mind, Trump is greatful.” Of course, in that case, it would just be a synonym for “great.” We hardly need “greatful,” much less “greatnessful.” “Great” does a perfectly good job.
I’m certain that Trump sees himself a John Galt type. He did it all on his own. (What rich father?!) Thus Trump isn’t in any true sense grateful. It would be nice to have a homophone just for him. It’s nice to think that the President of the US is grateful, even if just in spoken English.
English Makes Sense
Regardless of Trump, this does clarify why we have the word grateful and not the word greatful. Contrary to what I thought when I was younger, the English language — even its spelling — makes a lot of sense. It isn’t perfect. (What is?!) But if you learn it well enough, you will find that it is pretty accommodating to your personal sense of logic and structure. And I’m grateful for that.