To play gooseberry means to play chaperon in the company of two other people who wish to be alone. It is a British idiom, related terms are plays gooseberry, played gooseberry, playing gooseberry. While someone playing gooseberry is considered a nuisance today, in the past a person willing to play gooseberry was a boon. Especially in the 1700s and 1800s, the only way a couple enamored with each other could spend time “alone” was by arranging to be accompanied by a chaperon. The best type of chaperon to have was one who would not watch the couple too closely, or report on a couple’s hand-holding or stolen kisses. Such a chaperon would distract himself during his time with the couple, participating in activities such as “picking gooseberries“, or looking the other way. Gooseberry was also slang for fool, and two lovers couldn’t pick a better chaperon than one who was willing to be their fool.
On one occasion, the person playing gooseberry was Richard Talbot, a courtier and friend of both Charles and James. (BBC History Magazine)
‘Playing gooseberry’ to a pair of lovers is not a good position to be in, and you only tell a dupe that he was born under a gooseberry bush. (The Telegraph)
It’s frolicsome, humorous but – with the light playing gooseberry amid the forest of steel poles – we see the loner seduce another guy’s girl… Van the Man’s voice falls silent as the jealous, lovelorn swain yowls and howls and wrenches in despair. (The Scotland Herald)
Other laughable awkward moments which rated in the survey included taking the mick out of someone who just won’t get a round in (6%); playing gooseberry to a loved-up couple (4%); unwittingly sporting a loo roll addition to your shoes as you leave the toilet (2%); and beginning to chat someone up – before realising that they aren’t the sex you first thought them to be (1%). (The Evening Times)