WHEN SHE ISN’T pursuing lexicography, Katherine Barber is an avid ballet fan and volunteer with the National Ballet of Canada, as well as an alto in the choir at Solemn Eucharist at St. Thomas’s. “My presence at St Thomas’s is, in a convoluted way, thanks to Oxford University Press,” says Barber. “When I was first hired, OUP sent me to Oxford, England, for four months of training at the Oxford English Dictionary. Bliss! I discovered the choirs at Christ Church, New College and Magdalen College, and started going to evensong every day – more bliss! That’s when I fell in love with Renaissance church music. So when I moved to Toronto, I looked for a church choir where I could sing my beloved William Byrd, and there was St. Thomas’s!” From her book, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs (OUP, 2006), we asked Katherine to pick six words that have something to do with church.
The story behind cretin is actually quite touching. Now, the cretinism we’re talking about here is a specific type of mental retardation and deformation, and not just using cretin as a catchall term of abuse for someone you consider stupid. This medical condition is caused by a lack of thyroid hormone in an unborn or newborn child, often caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. In the days before iodized salt, it was a particular problem in landlocked parts of Europe, where people didn’t have access to fish from the sea, which was the only source of iodine. So cretinism was quite common in the Swiss and French Alps. In the French dialect of that area, cretin was a variant of chretien, meaning “Christian,” and was applied to these sorely afflicted individuals, the idea being to remind people that cretins were human beings with souls just like everyone else.
Maudlin is a corruption of the name Mary Magdalen. Indeed, Magdalen was pronounced and often spelled “maudlin” in the Middle Ages, which explains why there is a college in Oxford spelled Magdalen but pronounced “maudlin” by all but the unwary tourists! Now Mary Magdalen, who is mentioned by name in the Gospels only as a follower of Christ who watched at the crucifixion, was often identified in tradition with the unnamed “sinner” in Luke’s Gospel who came to see Jesus, wept, and then bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her long hair. As a result, in art Mary Magdalen was often depicted as weeping, either in this particular incident or by the cross. So by 1600, maudlin was being used to mean “weepy.” Not long after that, it was being used to designate any effusive display of sentimentality, especially by someone who is drunk.
Talent comes to us from a parable. A talent was a form of money in the ancient world, the name deriving from a Greek word meaning “scales,” because it designated a certain weight of silver or gold. In the famous parable in St. Matthew’s gospel, a master gives his slaves a number of talents to look after for him while he is away. Two of them make money with their capital, but the third just digs a hole in the ground and puts his talent in there for safekeeping. As punishment for not making good enough use of his talent, he is thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Now, of course, this is all allegorical and not a biblical endorsement of entrepreneurialism, so in the late Middle Ages, talent took on a new meaning: the powers or abilities that a person may be naturally endowed with, seen as divinely entrusted to them to use well. By the 1600s, the idea of a talent being a gift from God with an obligation attached to it was weaker, and talent came to mean simply a natural ability of any kind.
We owe petrel to another saint and another Gospel story. Petrels are a type of seabird that fly far from land and have the habit of flying low over the water with their legs dangling so that they look as though they are walking on the water. They were therefore named after St. Peter, because in the Bible story where Jesus comes walking toward the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, Peter jumps out of the boat and tries to walk toward him on the water.
This isn’t the patter of rain on a roof or the pitter-patter of little feet, but patter as in a salesman’s spiel. It comes from Pater Noster, the first words (“Our Father”) of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.
It is very easy to lapse into doing it in a mechanical, rapid or mumbling way. People weren’t any different back in the Middle Ages, so patter originally meant muttering the Lord’s Prayer (and subsequently any prayer) fast, without paying much attention to it. From those origins, patter came to mean any smooth, rapid or glib talk that pays little attention to meaning.
In Italian, cappuccino literally means a Capuchin monk. Capuchins are Franciscan monks who got their name because their habit included a sharp pointed hood, or cappuccio in Italian. And, being Franciscans, their habit is brown, much like the colour of…cappuccino!