Cheap and showy, gaudy. Of persons: low, mean, or base.
Like many women of her day, the seventh-century Anglian princess Etheldreda was betrothed against her wishes. So, understandably, she fled to the Isle of Ely in the middle of the river Ouse, just north of Cambridge, England.
There she established a religious house, served as its abbess, and eventually was canonized as St. Audrey. She died in 679 due to a throat tumor, which St. Audrey herself declared was divine punishment for the vanity of her youth, when she was overly fond of fine neckwear. In honor of St. Audrey, the townfolk of Ely held an annual fair, where merchants hawked frilly lace scarves they called St. Audrey's lace. Over time, this expression shortened to tawdry lace. Soon tacky imitations abounded, giving tawdry its later connotation of "cheap and pretentious."
"For years, tawdry stories and haggard photographs have chronicled his messy divorces, his lawsuit to stop distribution of a nude videotape and his stint at the Betty Ford Clinic after a car accident." -- The New York Times on "Fraiser" star Kelsey Grammer.
This mouthful of a word has picturesque roots: It's from Latin tergum, which refers to the "back" and versare, which means "to turn." In its earliest sense, tergiversate meant to "turn one's back" on someone or something.
"What I can't figure out is why most people still seem so unfazed by his shameless tendency to tergiversate."
A bump or hollow in a road.
Why this silly name for a pothole or teeth-rattling bump in the road? The Oxford English Dictionary says this term was inspired by the fact that hitting one of these obstructions "causes persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour."
Thank-you-ma'am in this sense has been around since at least 1849. Oliver Wendell Holmes used it nicely in The Guardian Angel:
"Life's a road that's got a good many thank-you-ma'am's to go bumpin' over, says he."
To spruce up.
Originally spelled tidivate, this word is apparently a combination
of "tidy" and some word like elevate, cultivate or renovate.
A state of chaos, disorder, and utter confusion.
This expression comes from a similar-sounding Hebrew phrase for "emptiness and desolation." In fact, it's the phrase used early in the book of Genesis, where the earth is described as being "without form and void." The modern English adaptation of this Hebrew phrase is spelled several ways, including tohu-bohu, tohu-vavohu, tohu-vabohu, and tohu and bohu.
"Charlie had been warned, of course, that substitute teaching would be a challenge, but never in his wildest dreams had he imagined walking in to confront such a terrible tohubohu."
The little flap of cartilage that projects over the hole in your ear.
Ever wonder about the name for this anatomical structure? Well, it takes its name from the ancient Greek word tragos, meaning "goat," because of the way that the hairs that grow there often resemble a billy-goat's whiskers.
"Boy, Uncle Ned's tragus really lives up to its name, doesn't it?"
1. Keen, incisive.
2. Clear-cut; distinct.
3. Vigorous; forcefully argued (as in "a trenchant analysis that clearly delineates the issues")
4. Cutting, caustic.
Keep in mind that a trench is something cut into the ground, and it's easy to remember that its linguistic relative, trenchant, refers to something "cutting" in a more abstract sense. Both words come from Old French trenchier, meaning "to cut."
"Paul (who, as you know, rarely says anything) astonished everyone by responding with a trenchant remark that left us all cringing."
To be servile or submissive.
A truckle bed is so called because it rolls on small wheels or casters called truckles. Usually it's kept hidden under another bed until time to be rolled out. Truckle bed was first recorded in 1459; and the verb to truckle, that is "to sleep in the lower bed" first appears in 1613. A half-century or so later, truckle was being used in a more figurative to mean "take a subordinate or inferior position."
(Some people call such beds trundle beds, the trundle coming from an entirely different source -- the obsolete English word trendle, which, as it happens, also means "wheel.")
1. Pugnacious, belligerent
2. Savage, fierce, scathing
Truculent is from Latin trux, meaning "savage" or "fierce." Definitely not to be confused with truckling. (See above.)
"There is...in world affairs...a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly."--Dwight D. Eisenhower
(TOO-lip or TYOO-lip)
A flower in the lily family.
The name of the tulip stems from its resemblance to a type of headwear -- namely, the turban.
In the sixteenth century, Austria's ambassador visited Turkey and became enchanted with the unusual flowers there. The Turks' traditional name for this flower was lale, but the ambassador's interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for "turban," because of its shape.
When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which eventually wound up in English as tulip.
"I've got to get my tulips in the ground soon, but I can't decide whether to plant Abbas, Angeliques, or Blushing Brides."
A tall drinking glass.
Ever wonder why a drinking glass would have a name that makes it sound so very unstable? Well, in seventeenth-century England, tumblers were just that: cups with rounded or pointed bottoms, which made them fall over when they were set down. This encouraged imbibers to drink the whole thing in one big guzzle--and, of course, to order another round. Over time, the drinking vessel's shape changed, but its name stuck.
"Then, as if she needed any more confirmation that it was going to be a rotten day, her favorite Flintstones tumbler slipped out of her hand and crashed to the floor."
If the turkey is a bird that's native to North America, why is it named after a country thousands of miles away? It turns out that turkey is one of many foods that received their names due to geographical mix-ups.
The British first applied the name turkey to another bird, the African guinea fowl, which was introduced into England in the sixteenth century by traders who, as it happened were from Turkey. Around the same time, Spaniards began bringing back real turkeys from New World, and soon English speakers were constantly confusing the gobbler with the guinea fowl.
"And for our main course, we'll have wheat gluten molded into the shape of a turkey."
A dress jacket.
The story of tuxedo has many surprising twists and turns: Once there was a sub-group of Delaware Nation scornfully known to other Indians as the P'tuksit. This name literally means "the wolf-footed ones," or "the round-footed ones," and alludes to the fact that the P'tuksit Indians had a reputation for being "easily toppled" in war.
Later, English settlers moved into a part of New York State once inhabited by the P'tuksit and borrowed that name for the area, anglicizing it to Tucksito. The spelling went through several changes, finally stabilizing as Tuxedo.
Eventually this area was home to a wealthy New York resort called Tuxedo Park. There in 1886, an heir to the Lorillard tobacco fortune started a fashion craze by attending the country club's annual ball dressed in a formal dinner jacket minus the traditional tails. This new style quickly caught on and was named after the site of its debut.
"My, the conductor looks great in that tuxedo - and her new haircut's lovely, too!"
Affectedly cute, or quaint; overly precious or nice.
Although twee is now a perfectly legitimate word, it originated in baby talk, deriving from the playful use of "tweet" for "sweet" -- as in "Awwwwww, now isn't that 'tweet'?
"Well, you might have liked Jodie Foster's performance in 'Nell," but don't you agree that it was a little bit . . . well, twee?"
<Return to Archive