The Obligatory Obsequies

At least once a book, I refer to some lord or lady enduring obsequies from the footmen, maids or characters of lesser rank. Invariably, Madam Copy Editor will leave a margin note for me that “obsequies” are funerary rites, though I’ve only heard the word used in that sense when somebody alludes to “final obsequies.”

Turns out Madam Copy Editor is right, which is often the case. OED lists one definition for obsequy as: A funeral rite or ceremony; a funeral. Also: a commemorative rite or service (performed at the grave of the deceased or elsewhere) (now rare).

And yet, there is another definition, from the same root as obsequiousness, as follows:

Ready compliance with the will or pleasure of another, esp. a superior; deferential service; 

From what I can tell, the first definition cropped up as a variant of the Latin exsequiae, meaning final rites, in the sense of a duty to the dead, while the second definition is the modern descendent of the Latin obsequiem, having the same meaning of deferential service.

Maybe, in future books, I’ll have the maids and footmen being merely attentive and polite, lest somebody think I’m sending a character to a premature reward.

The Season of Miracles

I went to Catholic elementary school, and was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, a teaching order that still, when I started school, wore traditional, long, black, habits. I recall Sister James throwing the word “miracle” around, and how she could imbue it with a sense of awe and wonder, as if the word itself was a marvel.

Which it is, which all words are, which language is. Sister had an advantage though, because the only parts of her revealed by her habit were her hands and her face. When her eyes got big, and she proclaimed something, “A Miracle!” several dozen six-year-olds were ready to behold signs and wonders.

OED defines the term thus: A marvellous event not ascribable to human power or the operation of any natural force and therefore attributed to supernatural, esp. divine,

May your holiday season be full of such events!

Utterly Flummoxed

I’ve long had a fondness for the word flummox, which, per OED, means “to bring to confusion; cause to fail; to confound, bewilder, nonplus.” At least once per book, a character of mine will be flummoxed, though this could be slightly anachronistic usage in a Regency.

One of the earliest cites for this term comes from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, which dates from 1837: “He’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed.” The interesting thing is, flummox appears to have sprung up in English dialectical usage out of whole cloth, an onomatopoeic term for rough, untidy treatment. I’ve always liked the sound of the word, but thought there must be some Latinate ancestor–flumare, flumaxis?–or a Germanic one–aufgeflummen–but turns out this is good old yeoman slang.

Absolute Bedlam

I’d heard the word bedlam in earliest youth as a reference to pandemonium, chaos, or things being “a madhouse,” but didn’t realize then the word refers to a literal asylum. The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem became “Bedlam” in common English parlance at some point long ago. The facility was first located in Bishopsgate, then in 1676 was moved near the London wall, and in 1815 was again moved, this time to Lambeth.

Even when I made the connection between bedlam and Bethlehem, I hadn’t realized how old the term is. OED finds cites for it in the sixteenth century, while the hospital itself dates back at least to the 1300s.

Grose Words

Where is an “Anabaptist” a pickpocket caught in the act, and “moving the apostles” cant for robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Where do “barking irons” get you killed, and who would be most likely to do business with a “bat”?

In Regency England, of course, but more significantly, in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811 edition). This marvelous resource is available through Project Gutenberg, and will offer endless entertainment for any who peruse its pages. Barking irons are guns, and a bat…? A streetwalker, who like a bat, moves out at sundown to transact her business.

To enjoy this volume, click here, but be warned–the book is addictive.

Hysterical Note

Because I was married to a fellow who’d studied Greek, I crossed paths with the derivation of the word hysterectomy–meaning surgical removal of the womb, or ustere, as best I can phonetic-ize the Greek. I did not extrapolate from that knowledge to the conclusion that hysteria (hysterics, hysterical) derives from the same root, being originally considered a disorder of the womb.

This, of course, leads me to wonder how a highly upset man’s situation would be diagnosed, said man being in want of the eponymous organ.

The intersection of these various meanings is part of what makes the 2011 movie “Hysteria” such an interesting tale. This is a sly, funny, and even somewhat factual look at how the electric vibrator came into home use by Victorian ladies. Yes, the Victorians invented the vibrator, though the movie suggests they might have stumbled upon some of the first documented cases of carpal tunnel syndrome too…Which some of us might find… hysterical.