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

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