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Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Attire: powdering the face

We are told in the Bible, II Kings, if you like, the 9th chapter and 30th verse, that Jezebel "starched her face, and tired her heed, and looked out a window." This is from a 1539 version of the Sacred Book. Jezebel was really putting a white powder on her face, and was fixing her hair up with an ornament or headdress, for that is what tire meant at the time. The word tire is a shortened form of attire, which comes from the Old French atire, "to put in order," derived from a, "to," and tire, "row," which, incedentally, gave us word tier, that "row" of boxes in the opera house. Of course, from dressing the hair, the sense of attire has widened to dress in general.

BELLADONNA: Beautiful lady

Way back in the Renaissance days of the evil Borgias of Italy, when political purges were accomplished by poisoned rings and with foods and wines that were drugged with fatal doses, the lovely, dark-eyed ladies found a pleasant use for belladonna, the extract of the deadly nightshade. They discovered that a drop of this substance in each eye would expand the pupils and give them an expression of languorous beauty. And that seems to be the reason for the name belladonna, which an Italian means "fair lady".

COLLAR: around the neck

The collars that men and women wear today are nothing like the elaborate jeweled affairs that Cleopatra wore, or the iron ones that choked the slaves, but they are collars just the same for they are worn around the neck. The Latin word for collar can easily be seen in the French word decollete, "low-necked", because it is "away"(Latin de-) from the "neck".

FAVOR: usually a ribbon

Favors that are given at parties have a romantic history. In the Middle Ages ladies watched the tournaments and encouraged the knights with soft looks and tokens. The tokens they gave were varied, a ribbon, a mantle, a glove, sometimes even a portion of a dress. The knight wore this token, called a favor, on his arm. The word favor is through French from latin faveo, "to regard warmly or with good will."

GARTER: where the knee bends

The Countess of Salisbury once lost her garter while dancing with Edward III, or so claims the old story. With real 14th centrury gallantry the king picked it up, fastened it on his own leg, and spoke this immortal words: "Honi soit qui mal y pense;" Evil to him who thinks evil," which is the motto of the Order of the Garter. The word itself comes from the French gartier, which in turn derives from garet, "the bend in the knee." So the garter is named from the limd on which it is worn.


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