WordWatch roundup: Sassenach, Mrs Grundy, Plaid Cymru, Maundy, and tricoteuse
This series investigates changes in lookups for words and their meanings across OxfordDictionaries.com. The graphs are based on website data collected over a four-week period, and the accompanying commentary explores how news and other current events have influenced these word trends and sudden peaks in interest.
Following the return on 4 April of the second half of Season 1 of the British-American TV drama Outlander, it was hardly surprising to see a spike in look-ups of the word Sassenach. After all, the protagonist of Diana Gabaldon’s series of books, on which the TV show is based, is often referred to as a ‘Sassenach’ by other characters, Sassenach being a derogatory Irish and Scottish term for ‘an English person’ or an outsider. The novel and television show tell the story of a WWII-era nurse named Claire Randall, who travels back in time to 18th-century Scotland.
The word Sassenach descends from the Saxon people, who lived in the lower parts of Great Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Saxon population (think Anglo-Saxon) developed into what is traditionally considered the ‘English’ population, and the Gaelic inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland would use this term to refer to their ‘Saxon’ (English) neighbors. In modern use, often by Celtic speakers, Sassenach refers to an English person.
Also known as Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday is the name for the Thursday before Easter, and commemorates the Last Supper. In the UK, the day is known for the custom of the sovereign giving alms to the poor. The day is also an official holiday in several countries around the world.
The word Maundy, however, specifically refers to the custom of washing the feet of the faithful, paying tribute to Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. During the ceremony, one of the antiphons, or ‘short sentences sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle’, comes from the Gospel of John: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another’ (John 13:34). In the Latin version of the service, the phrase ‘new commandment’ is mandatum novum. Over time, the ceremony became known as the mandatum, which eventually was shortened to Maundy.
Plaid Cymru, proper name
On 2 April, ITV News hosted a pre-election debate between seven UK party leaders, including Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist Party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the name Plaid Cymru comes from Welsh, meaning ‘party of Wales’. The party was founded in 1925 as Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, which literally means ‘national party of Wales’, but the shortened version became common in informal discourse, so the party officially changed its name in 1945 to Plaid Cymru.
More interesting language from the world of UK politics: in a recent op-ed piece for The Telegraph, political columnist Bruce Anderson referred to Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, as having ‘all the human warmth of a tricoteuse waiting for a tumbril’. For those who have forgotten their French, a tricoteuse is ‘a woman who sits and knits’, and is often used to refer to the women who did this during the French Revolution, especially while attending public executions. A tumbril is ‘an open cart that tilted backward to empty out its load, in particular one used to convey condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution’.
Mrs Grundy, noun
The interest in Mrs Grundy, ‘a person with conventional standards of propriety’, was driven almost exclusively by a recent article in the BBC News Magazine, which explored the history of the roller-skating craze of the 1870s. Because ‘holding hands and sweet nothings became easier without Mother Grundy around’, the article posits that roller-skating helped to stoke a mini-sexual revolution.
But who is this Grundy character? According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Grundy is the ‘surname of an imaginary personage (Mrs. Grundy) who is proverbially referred to as a personification of the tyranny of social opinion in matters of conventional propriety’. The OED also notes that the origin can be found in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough, in which ‘Dame Ashfield is represented as constantly fearing to give occasion for the sneers of her neighbour, Mrs. Grundy. Her frequent question ‘What will Mrs. Grundy say?’ became proverbial…as expressing the attitude of those who regard the disapproval of society as the worst of evils’.
Another language tidbit offered up by the article is the word rinkomania, which cropped up thanks to the sudden popularity of roller-skating rinks. Indeed, the OED has an entry for rinkomania: ‘a passion for skating on rinks, esp. the popular roller-skating craze of the 1870s’.