Sorting out the changing meaning of ‘grooming’

It’s “grooming” when we take care of our dogs, cats, and horses. A more sinister sense predominates, however.


If you search Twitter for #grooming, you’ll see a word in transition. Tweets about hair care products and cosmetics come up as part of “personal grooming”; dogs, cats, and horses are mentioned because it’s “grooming” when we trim their nails and hoofs and brush these animals. 

A more sinister sense predominates, however. The top tweets for #grooming feature accusations of pedophilia, desperate pleas to #saveourkids, and incendiary political insults. What does grooming mean here? 

The verb to groom was initially used in the 19th century, first in terms of currying (brushing) and feeding horses. By 1843, this sense had transferred to people, and “he was well groomed” meant he paid close attention to his appearance. In the late 19th century, grooming went metaphorical and came to mean something like to mentor: “to prepare as a political candidate ... to prepare or coach for a career,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

In the 1980s, grooming entered the lexicon of abnormal psychology – it morphed into “to befriend or influence (a child), now esp. via the internet, in preparation for future sexual abuse.” This is the sense that now prevails in public discourse. 

Why is this newer, more inflammatory use of grooming so prominent on social media? 

According to a 2022 survey, 25% of Republicans agree with the central ideas in the debunked QAnon conspiracy theory that holds that Democratic elites are leading a worldwide child sex-trafficking ring. Believers in the conspiracy want to “save our children” from being groomed by the political left. 

In this context, the word grooming packs a powerful emotional punch. Conservative politicians have thus found it useful to energize their voters.  

When Florida passed a law that prohibits schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary called it the “Anti-Grooming Bill,” and claimed that anyone who doesn’t support it is “probably a groomer or at least ... [doesn’t] denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children.” 

Here, grooming could almost be a synonym for “indoctrination” or “brainwashing,” and left-wing commentators have begun to use it in this sense. They post pictures of kids with guns or in MAGA hats under #grooming, further ratcheting up the online vitriol. 

If you think about it, the word education itself fits Merriam-Webster’s definition of to groom: “to get into readiness for a specific objective: prepare.” 

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