What in the Word?! The mawkish misnomer of ‘maudlin’
The Christmas lights have come down. The choruses of Auld Lang Syne have faded. We’ve dragged ourselves back to work. And for all the hopes and promises of the new year, the post-holiday blues have settled in like a cold, dark winter’s night.
The third Monday in January, in fact, has been called Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the entire year. Or at least as Sky Travel wanted to have it in a 2005 press release. The former British television channel apparently paid Dr Cliff Arnall, who ‘calculated’ that date based on factors of weather, debt, salary, and time since Christmas.
Seasonal affective disorder is very real, to be sure, and many of us do experience shorter dips in mood this time of year. But the idea of a single most depressing day? That’s pseudoscience, and verges on the morose. We might rather call this Blue Monday Maudlin Monday – or, etymologically, Magdalene Monday.
There’s something about ‘Mary’
We might thank – or blame – Pope St. Gregory I for the modern meaning of maudlin, ‘self-pityingly sad or sentimental’.
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, there are several prominent women named Mary, a common name in Jesus’ day. (It comes from Mariam in Aramaic, the main language Jesus is believed to have spoken, based on the Hebrew Miriam.) Besides Mary, mother of Jesus, there’s Mary Magdalene, the disciple who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection – and thus a central, and much storied, figure in Christian thought and lore.
Right before the Gospel of Luke names ‘Mary called Magdalene’, from whom seven demons were expelled, it describes an unnamed repentant woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Gospel of John tells a similar account of Mary of Bethany washing the feet of Jesus with her hair. In these two passages, the women also anoint Jesus’ feet with ointment of spikenard they had on hand.
Enter Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604), whose name is remembered in Gregorian chant. In a sermon he delivered around 591 just after he assumed the papacy, he sanctioned a view that Mary Magdalene was one and the same as the other two, tear-washing penitents. He also interpreted that ointment as a sign that she was a reformed prostitute, as she has been figured, despite evidence, ever since. As he said in Homily 33:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.
The original ‘maudlin’
In the Middle Ages, Gregory’s vision of Mary Magdalene helped led to her popular depiction as variously weeping in medieval Christian art – so much so that her name became synonymous with crying. And her name in Middle English? Maudlin.
The Oxford English Dictionary finds abundant evidence for Maudlin as early as 1300 in a hagiographic Early South-English Legendary or Lives of Saints:
In þe Castel of Magdale þis faire wumman was i-bore; heo was icleoped in propre name ‘þe Maudeleyne’ riȝht þare-fore’
(In the castle of Magdala this fair woman was born; she was called in proper name ‘the Maudlin’ right therefore).
Marie þe Maudeleyne and hire broþur lazarus, and heore suster Martha
(Mary the Maudlin and her brother Lazarus, and her sister Martha).
A few things are interesting here. In the latter citation, Mary Magdalene is presented as the sister of Martha and brother of Lazarus, an identification resulting from that composite Mary that Gregory helped purvey. The former says Mary was born in the ‘Castle of Magdala’, an important clue to the ultimate origin of her name. And both refer to Mary with that curious article, ‘the’.
Magdalene was not Mary’s surname. In Koine Greek, considered the first language the New Testament was written in, Mary Magdalene was Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή (Maria he Magdalene), or Mary of Magdala. Magdala was a town on the Sea of Galilee, said to mean ‘tower’ in Aramaic. The Greek suffix -ηνη (-ene) denoted ‘from or living in particular place,’ also surviving in Jesus the Nazarene (Jesus of Nazareth) – which is also why earlier English speakers called her Mary the Magdalene. If you go by Magdalen or another variant, your name literally means ‘woman from Magdala’.
From tears to jeers
The Greek Magdalene became the Latin Magdalena. Probably under the influence of the French Madeline, another name of Magdalene legacy, Latin’s Magdalena became the English Magdalene.
The OED finds the Magdalene in a Middle English poem, The Southern Passion, composed as early as 1280. The OED also notes that the popular form of Magdalene was Maudlin. We can well imagine how the g sound fell away and how the open a morphed into an au. Stroll around Oxford University today and you might come across Magdalen College, which is still pronounced as Maudlin. Same goes for the Cambridge college.
As the OED observes of Magdalene/Maudlin:
In the course of the history of the two forms, there has been an almost complete overlap of usage (compare senses at maudlin n.), although apparently never for very long in each sense. The spelling Magdalen or Magdalene became established for references to Mary herself, and in senses relating to her identification as a reformed prostitute; maudlin , except in the names of plants, only for ‘mawkish sentimentality’, after maudlin adj.
Maudlin the noun, as we saw, emerges around 1300 as a common name for Mary Magdalene. In Alexander Barclay’s 1509 translation of The Ship of Fools, we find maudlin drunk (‘some mawdelayne dronke, mournynge lowdly & hye’), drawing on the widespread imagery of Mary Magdalene weeping before Jesus in penitence for her sins. In his 1592 satire Pierce Penniless, Elizabethan author Thomas Nashe makes even more explicit the connection of maudlin to the effusive emotions of inebriation: ‘Mawdlen drunke, when a fellow will weepe for kindnes in the midst of his Ale, and kisse you’.
By 1607, we find record of maudlin as an adjective for ‘tearful’ and by 1616, freed up from the phrase maudlin drunk as a descriptor of such on its own. Such displays apparently had negative associations in Early Modern English, as maudlin’s weepiness took on notes of ‘mawkish’ and ‘weakly sentimental’. Here, the OED cites a letter from poet John Donne dated to around 1631: ‘It was matter, which I might very well have left unwritten, having too much of the Maudlin humour in it’, the ‘matter’ often interpreted as referring to the painful sickness which claimed his life that year.
The modern maudlin isn’t the reputation Mary Magdalene deserves, if we look to what’s actually in the New Testament, nor are the subsequent associations of Magdalene with sexual promiscuity, e.g., Magdalene asylums or laundries as one-time homes for what the Catholic Church called ‘fallen women’.
So, perhaps we should return to the text. She’s mentioned over a dozen times in the four canonical gospels, frequently as a distinguished disciple of Jesus. And in the Gospels of Mark and John, she’s the first person who the resurrected Jesus appears to. And oh, that’s not to mention our enduring fascination with her in art and literature, including the upcoming film, Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in an empowered portrait of her.
It would seem the more ancient roots of her name – ‘tower’, suggesting stature and prominence – seems a more apt remembrance for Mary Magdalene than her namesake, maudlin. And that’s an uplifting thought we could all do with amid our hibernal haze.