Thursday, August 12, 2004
What in the Word?
I start each day with a bowl of high-fiber cereal, low-fat yogurt, and The Word of the Day from Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher. Each morning, there in my e-mail IN box, is a new word, plus a bit about the word's origin. The goal here is to improve my vocabulary, but mostly I enjoy reading the word histories. My, what twisted journeys some words take to make it into our language.

Just earlier this week, the Word of the Day was "tawdry." Now, tawdry is a lovely word in its own right. Thanks to Merriam-Webster, I know more about how this word came to be, and I like it even better than before.

Tawdry's rather tawdry past is described this way:
In the 7th century, Etheldreda, the queen of Northumbria, renounced her husband and her royal position for the veil of a nun. She was renowned for her saintliness and is traditionally said to have died of a swelling in her throat, which she took as a judgment upon her fondness for wearing necklaces in her youth. Her shrine became a principal site of pilgrimage in England. An annual fair was held in her honor on October 17th, and her name became simplified to St. Audrey. At these fairs various kinds of cheap knickknacks were sold, along with a type of necklace called "St. Audrey's lace," which by the 17th century had become altered to "tawdry lace." Eventually, "tawdry" came to be used to describe anything cheap and gaudy that might be found at these fairs or anywhere else.

St. Audrey, fall festivals, lace necklaces. This is without a doubt the most interesting word history I've run into. The word it self has a scandalous sort of feel. Tawdry--it sounds naughty just to say it out loud. Come to find out, the word memorializes a saint noted for her neck and commemorated by cheap lace necklaces. What's not to love? In an era where aged T-shirts and pre-ripped jeans are all the rage, I have a feeling tawdry is going to make a big come back. Just to help the word along, I'm going to start dropping tawdry into all sorts of unexpected places, like while I'm in staff meetings or during water cooler chit-chat with my coworkers. I'll say things like, "what a great hair cut you've got there. Very tawdry!" And "Look at those darling tawdry shoes. Where can I get some!"

Tawdry will become the new cool.


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