Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tawdry

From a New Dictionary of Eponyms, Oxford University Press, 1997:

Some words evolve in an odd way. Consider tawdry, which evolved from
the name of St. Audrey, a person once revered in Great Britain.

The story began in the seventh century with a princess named
Etheldrida (spelled several different ways) who valued chastity so
much, as a personal religious vow, that she decided she should not
surrender her virginity even if married. She became the wife of the
Prince of Gyrwinas, who graciously and considerately died in three
years without having sullied her marital bed. She then became the
queen of Egfrid, the king of Northumbria, with whom she did not engage
in connubial bliss either, despite his impassioned pleadings. Audrey,
as she came to be called, entered a convent with her husband's
consent. However, he had second thoughts and realized that he was
entitled to wifely sexual companionship. Learning of his change of
mind, Audrey disguised herself as an old woman and, together with two
older nuns, fled to the Isle of Ely, which her first husband had left
her, and ruled over it until her death in 679.

Audrey engaged in frequent prayers but infrequent baths. She bathed
only four times a year, each bath preceding one of the four great
feasts. A few years after arriving on Ely, she developed a tumor in
her throat, which she took to be divine punishment for the youthful
follies of decorating her neck with worldly ornaments. Audrey did not
die of cancer, however; she became a victim of the plague.

Etheldrida, under her anglicized name Audrey, was sainted. In her
memory a fair called St. Audrey's Day was held annually on October 17
until it petered out in the seventeenth century. At these festivities
cheap, gaudy trinkets were sold as mementoes, and the item called "St.
Audrey's lace," a showy scarf, was in great demand. These neckpieces
were of poor quality to start with. They became shabbier and cheaper
as time went on until finally the word to describe them, and
ultimately any showy and worthless piece of finery, was tawdry, a
shortened corrupted form of St. Audrey.