Grassroots

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Could you please explain the roots of the word “grassroots”? I sometimes wonder what the connection between people and grass is! 

Grass has a great deal to do with people. Grass is a powerful archetypal symbol that works at the unconscious level to stir a variety of emotions.

In his short, emotionally powerful poem called “Grass,” Carl Sandburg uses the symbol of grass to convey the waste and ultimate meaninglessness of war:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all…

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

The author of Psalm 103 uses grass to illustrate the brevity of human existence:

As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and the place where it was shall know it no more.

The importance of grass to human beings is rooted deep in the unconscious. Grasslands once covered up to 25 to 40 percent of the earth’s land surface. Grass feeds animals that feed people. The roots of grass are so interconnected that damage to one small patch threatens the whole.

New grass signals the coming of spring. In fact, grass was once used as a name for spring or early summer: “She was five years old this grass.”

One meaning of the term grassroots is “the fundamental level; the source or origin,” as illustrated by this citation in the OED:

Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Course of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil. —Kipling, 1901.

Because grass is rooted in the earth, grassroots has become a term for “the common people.”

In the context of politics, grassroots is used as both noun and adjective in reference to society at the local level.

These observations at a political site called Renew America illustrate some of the meanings politicians attach to the term grassroots:

Any political strategy that depends on broad grassroots support for its success needs to be based on a sound understanding of how the grassroots works. 

By definition, the grassroots is the bottom of the political pyramid, opposite the “establishment,” which controls the top. 

The grassroots is the very essence of politics. It is dumping tea in a harbor, or standing up and testifying at a local city council meeting. It is that whole realm of politics beyond official station.

Grassroots is only one of several idioms that refer to grass. I’ll save the others for another post.

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2 Responses to “Grassroots”

  • Dan Lafreniere

    Hi Maeve.
    “Grassroots” also refers to the democratic political structure of NGOs or community organizations. Grassroots is a synonym for a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” organization.
    Cheers!
    ;Dan

  • John

    Is the word “grassroots” really treated singular as shown in your example (quoted below)?

    “The grassroots is the very essence of politics. It is dumping tea in a harbor, or standing up and testifying at a local city council meeting. It is that whole realm of politics beyond official station.”

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