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The meaning and origin of the expression: Tawdry

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Tawdry

Meaning

Showy, but of poor quality.

Origin

Why should the derivation of a single word like 'tawdry' be listed on a site that specialises in the etymology of phrases? Two reasons: one, it is short for the phrase 'tawdry lace' (of which more later) and another, I like the derivation so decided to sneak it in.

TawdryFor the explanation of the word tawdry we have to go back to 7th century England and the story of Etheldrida, the daughter of the king of East Anglia, who was otherwise known as Saint Audrey. Audrey died in 679 AD of a tumour of the throat. It was recorded by the Venerable Bede in Ecclesiasticall History, 731 AD, that her fate was considered just retribution as she had "for vain show adorned her neck with manifold splendid necklaces".

In the 16th century Nicholas Harpsfield, the Archdeacon of Canterbury, published his own ecclesiastical history Historia Anglicana Ecclesiastica and commented that:

"Our women of England are wont to wear about the neck a certain necklace, formed of thin and fine silk."

These silks were known as Saint Audrey's laces.

As time went by, 'St. Audrey's lace' became shortened to 'taudrey lace'. That comes as little surprise to those of us who live in Yorkshire, where expressions like 'the other' and 'down the hole' have long been replaced by 't'other' and 'down t'ole'. In his 1579 poem The Shepheardes Calendar, Edmund Spenser referred to 'tawdrie lace', in a warning to shepherd's daughters:

See, that your rudenesse doe not you disgrace:
Binde your fillets faste,
And gird in your waste,
For more finesse with a tawdrie lace.

'Tawdry' hadn't by that date developed the 'showy/poor quality' meaning that we now use but had started on its route there. What began as a name for fine lace ribbon became a disparaging term for the poor quality lace bought by country wenches at rural fairs. When Shakespeare wanted to establish Mopsa, the country bumpkin girlfriend of the Clown in A Winter's Tale, as less than sophisticated, he portrayed her as interested in frivolous showy dress and gave her this line:

Come, you promised me a tawdry-lace and a pair of sweet gloves.

'Tawdry' has long departed from any association with saints or expensive necklaces and is now entirely a negative description. To all the Audrey's out there, sorry but, as they would say around here, you're just t'Audrey.