In this series I am looking at how words have developed and changed meanings, often radically, during their existence in our wonderful English language. The grammarians call the process semantic pejoration to describe the process by which a word’s meaning comes to represent something less favourably than it did.
Tawdry which today is an adjective used to describe something cheap and vulgar owes its origin to a seventh century saint. A queen of Northumbria, Etheldrida, gave up her throne and renounced all earthly pleasures. She annulled her marriage to the king and went off to take up the position of abbess of a monastery in the Isle of Ely. Alas, Etheldrida died of a throat disease, possibly a tumour, which, according to the Venerable Bede, she attributed as punishment for her erstwhile vain lifestyle, “I know of a surety that I deservedly bear the weight of my trouble on my neck, for I remember that, when I was a young maiden, I bore on it the needless weight of necklaces”.
Such a devout and sanctimonious woman soon attracted followers and in the fullness of time she was beatified as Audrey, her Saxon name having changed phonetically along the way. Her feast day was marked in Ely on October 17th with a fair at which cheap souvenirs were sold. One of the principal objects for sale was a neck lace called St Audrey’s lace. By 1540 a certain sloppiness in diction had crept in and the initial s of her sainthood was lost and the final t had elided into her name, producing tawdry lace. In 1610 tawdry was used as a noun to describe a silk necktie for women but by 1670 its fall from grace was complete, defined thus, “no longer fresh or elegant but worn as if it were so; in cheap and ostentatious imitation of what is rich or costly”.
As time went on the association with St Audrey and, indeed, laces was lost and the word was used adjectivally to describe anything that is cheap and tacky.
One of the particular pleasures and eccentricities of our language is that pronunciation doesn’t always follow spelling. So for students of the language encountering names like Worcester, Gloucester, Cholmondeley and, of course, Magdalene can be a challenge. The trick for pronouncing Magdalene is to think of the word maudlin which owes its origin to the biblical character. Mary Magdalene was a reformed sex worker, forgiven by Jesus (Luke vii.37) and who subsequently wept at Christ’s tomb on the first Easter morning. She was immortalised in numerous mediaeval paintings and stained glass windows as a bit of a tear fountain.
Her character and her name became so associated with the act of weeping that by 1630 the adjective maudlin was defined as characterised by tearful sentimentality. Of course, Magdalene isn’t spelt like maudlin but the pronunciation was the same, Magdalene owing its origin from the Old French, Madelaine. Today the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge bearing the name Magdalene are known as Maudlin and we use the word adjectivally without giving any consideration to where it came from.