April 30, 2014

Case File #014.04.30: EMBALM

When embalm first appeared in the English lexicon around 1385, it was spelled enbaumen (or sometimes embawmen), and this makes sense when you consider that the verb was derived from the Old French embaumer, which meant “to preserve a corpse through the use of spices or other substances.” In the mid-fifteenth century, the form of the English word changed to enbalmen, with the u (or w ) being replaced by an l due to the influence of the Latin balsamum, meaning “balm.” (Latin was kind of a big thing among the learned during the Renaissance, what with a lot of stuff from classical antiquity having just been rediscovered and all.) The spelling of the English finally shifted to the current embalm during the early sixteenth century, at which time the verb also took on the secondary meanings of “to fix (someone or something) in a static state” and “to infuse with a sweet or pleasant fragrance,” though the olfactory one is now considered archaic and generally used only by poets.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 23, 2014

Case File #014.04.23: BEDLAM

You may find this a little ironic, but the roots of the noun bedlam wind all the way back to a thirteenth-century priory. Established in London in 1247, the Saint Mary of Bethlehem Friary was initially set up as a monastic community for monks and nuns, but by 1330, it had been converted to a hospital for the poor and had come to be known as the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem. The hospital was taken over by the state in 1375, and by 1405, it was being used, at least in part, as a public insane asylum, one of the first such institutions in England. That's all very interesting, you say, but what does any of it have to do with the word bedlam ? Well, in the colloquial speech of fourteenth-century London, the hospital in question was often referred to as simply Bethlehem. As the years went by, however, this was contracted first to Bethlem and then to Bedlem, and by the time the hospital became an institution for the insane in the early fifteenth century, people were calling it Bedlam. It didn't take too long, of course, for people to associate the hospital's informal moniker with the tumultuous behavior that was often exhibited by the institution's mentally disturbed residents, and by the end of the seventeenth century, bedlam had become a generic term meaning “a place, scene, or state of uproar, confusion, or chaos.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 16, 2014

Case File #014.04.16: YAWN

Yawn started out as the Old English verb ginian (sometimes spelled gionian or geonian), which simply meant “to open the mouth widely.” During the late thirteenth century, the spelling of ginian shifted first to yenen, then to yonen, and then again to yanen, changes that occurred mainly because Middle English speakers were abandoning some of the Old English pronunciation practices, especially that of pronouncing a g like a y when adjacent to an i or an e. It was around 1430 that English speakers started using yanen to mean “to involuntarily open one's mouth wide and inhale deeply due to fatigue or boredom,” but it wasn't until circa 1550, nearly a century after Middle English had given way to modern English, that word's form changed to the now familiar yawn. And the noun senses of yawn were even later developments: the common “an act of yawning” appeared no earlier than 1697, while the colloquial “a thing that causes boredom” didn't show up until as late as 1890.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 9, 2014

Case File #014.04.09: INCH

The noun inch, meaning “a unit of linear measure equal to one twelfth of a foot,” has been around since at least 1000 CE, but the original Anglo-Saxons spelled it ynch. It was derived from the Latin uncia, which meant, not surprisingly, “one twelfth” or “a twelfth part,” and during the twelfth century, the spelling of the English changed to unche, a form more closely resembling that of the word's Latin ancestor. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the English form shifted again and became the now familiar inch. And not long after, the noun also took on its secondary figurative sense of “a very small degree or amount” (as when used in the colloquial phrase won't budge an inch), though inch didn't acquire its verb senses, “to move or progress by small degrees” and “to cause to move slowly,” until circa 1600.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

April 2, 2014

Case File #014.04.02: TAWDRY

Do you know that the adjective tawdry is a phonological attrition of the noun phrase Saint Audrey's lace? True story. You see, during the Middle Ages, an annual festival was held in Ely, England, to commemorate the life of Saint Audrey, a seventh-century nun who had been both a Northumbrian queen and an abbess of Ely and whose secular name was Æthelthryth (often transliterated in modern English as Etheldreda). At this festival, which was commonly known as Saint Audrey's Fair, merchants sold a sort of lacy collar or necktie—the saint's association with lace neckwear grew from the apocryphal belief that she had developed and eventually died from throat cancer, a malady that supposedly she herself considered divine retribution for her youthful penchant for expensive necklaces—and this popular neckwear was referred to as Saint Audrey's lace. As the years went by, though, reverence for the sainted nun waned and her annual festival virtually disappeared, and consequently, the phrase Saint Audrey's lace phonetically contracted to tawdry's lace. Around the beginning of the Renaissance, the phrase was further reduced to tawdry lace, and circa 1600, the term became simply tawdry and, now void of any religious significance, merely referred to any lacy or silken collar worn by women. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the fancy lace neckwear itself had fallen out of style, and since those who persisted in wearing it were now considered passé and gauche, tawdry came to mean “gaudy, ignoble, or sordid” and thus shifted from being a noun to being an adjective.

©2014 Michael R. Gates