(n.) the act of displaying fruit or vegetables so that the best produce is on top
As a verb, deacon can be used to mean ‘to pack or display fruit so that the best produce is on the top’.
That’s scarcely the most familiar meaning of this word, of course; the deacons of the Christian church date back to the Old English period, and have their origins (via Latin) in an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘messenger’ or ‘servant’. These fruit-packing deacons, however, are a more modern affair: they date from the early nineteenth century, when the word deaconing was used to refer to all kinds of shady or underhand activities.
Killing a calf as soon as it was born, for instance, was deaconing. As was the act of gradually moving the boundary fence of your own property outwards, so that you slowly encroach on and claim ownership of an area of public land. Wine could also be deaconed by being watered down, sweetened, or adulterated in some other way. And fruit could be deaconed if it was dishonestly displayed:
The blanc-mange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skilfully ‘deaconed’.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Where do all these underhand deacons come from? It’s unclear. But in the sense of putting the best of something on top, or of making the best of something the most visible, deaconing could allude to a church deacon acting as the moral centre or high point of a community.
Alternatively, things could be a lot less complimentary. It’s likely that this use of deacon originated in the United States, in which case it could have its roots in an old New England proverb that warned that ‘all deacons are good, but there’s odds in deacons’. Even among the very best, it seems, some things can be better than others.