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I expect you have all heard this expression at one time or another; it means “the thing that in some way mitigates all the negative points”. But where does it come from?
It’s actually quite simple to get to the origin of this phrase. But we like things to be a little more challenging. So, we are going to go first to the etymology of the word ‘grace’, and from there to the expression.
If you speak a Romance language, or even if you have just heard the Italian or Spanish words for ‘thank you’, then it may come as no surprise that ‘grace’ derives from Latin. Specifically, it comes from gratia, which meant ‘favour, positive quality, gratitude’. You can see how in Italian and Spanish it has developed to mean ‘thank you’. Gratia derives from gratus, which, unsurprisingly, meant ‘pleasing, nice’ and other similar things. It came into Middle English via Old French some time during the 12th century, and in Old French, Latin gratia had already become grace, and had taken on a religious significance; the grace of God, the positive favour granted by God to human beings.
Now you will understand why we looked first at ‘grace‘. Our expression, saving grace, derives from the religious usage of the word. According to Christianity, it is by God’s grace that we are saved, God’s special favour redeems us despite all our faults and flaws. And that, of course, is exactly how the expression is used: something becomes acceptable despite its flaws; it has a grace that saves it.
If we step back in time, we find that originally, when the expression was used in a non-religious context, people spoke of a ‘helping grace’, as only God could save. Thus we find:
oure helpyng grace muste… be seid to be ij qualitees of which oon schal be in oure resoun to tech
[Our helping grace must be said to be in qualities, of which one is our mental capacity to teach.]
(Reginald Pecock, The Rule of Christian Religion, 1443)
On an interesting note, gratus is thought to have evolved from Proto-Indo-European root *gwreto, itself from *gwere, ‘to favour, to be pleasing’. This is also the source of the word ‘agree’, coming from the sense ‘something pleasing’, which makes us sound rather smug when we agree!