All this thinking of “gooseberry” has naturally had me wondering about the expression “play gooseberry”. Why do we say this? And what do other people say?
Well, the English expression is not so hard to trace. It seems that “gooseberry picking” was a bit of a euphemism for lovers wanting to spend time together, a pretext to get away from everyone else. And it’s pretty clear who the third person is in this case – the gooseberry bush!
So lets have a look at what a few other languages have to say. In French, where, as I have said, the gooseberry is known as groseille à maquereau, it seems gooseberry picking was not so popular among lovers. They use the somewhat romantic phrase tenir la chandelle – “to hold the candle”, conjuring up an image of a third party holding up a light for the couple to see by! Not at all intrusive, of course! The Italian expressions, fare la candela, and reggere il moccolo are exactly the same. Slovenian also thinks along the same lines, with držati svečo, literally, “hold a candle”, or svetiti zraven, “to light up next”, while the Greek expression is also very similar; kratao to fanari (κρατάω το φανάρι), “to hold the lantern”.
I rather like the Spanish phrase el que toca el violin, the “violin player”. At least the music could be in the background!
The Welsh expression is a bit more literal: bod yn drydydd or dod rhwng dau gariad, which translate as “be the third” or “come between two sweethearts”. Similarly, in Russian you can say tretiy lishniy (Третий лишний), meaning “the third is the odd one out”.
Finally, you have to hand it to the Germans, who deserve a special mention for the expression den Anstandswauwau abgeben, “to provide the decency woof woof”! How’s that for a euphemism!