tawdry /TAH-dree/. adjective. Cheap, garish, gaudy.
The rabbit hole opened beneath my feet halfway through Jonathan Lethem’s new collection of essays, reviews and other bookish ephemera More Alive and Less Lonely. There, writing about the 1930’s novel Low Company, Lethem observes that author Daniel Fuchs achieves peak vernacular in his “rapidly sketched milieus of tawdry Americana.”
I knew what tawdry meant, as I’m sure you do—cheap, garish, gaudy—but I suddenly wondered where the strange word came from. Unlike other adjectives where the root is obvious—gore makes things gory, preps gonna be preppy—I had no idea what a tawd might be (nothing, as it turns out, unless you are a serious Star Wars fan and know them as the wooly, long-tailed, non-sentient creatures terrorizing farmers on the planet Durkteel). But after a little more digging, the origin of tawdry turned out to be even more interesting in its own non-earthbound way.
Tawdry is a shortening of tawdry lace, a silk ribbon necklace sold in honor of Saint Etheldreda, more commonly known as Saint Audrey.
Audrey’s story was interesting enough even before her sister exhumed her uncorrupted body 16 years after her death, independently translating her remains to a coffin of marble rescued from the Roman ruins at Grantchester. Born a princess and briefly queen of Northumbria, Audrey outlived her first husband and, in order to maintain her somehow-still-intact vow of virginity, outmaneuvered (and finally outran, thanks in part to a miraculous week-long high tide) her second, before spending her final years as a nun and founding a double monastery in Ely, just north of Cambridge. According to renowned monk, scholar and teacher Venerable Bede, writing 60 years after Audrey’s death, she died from a large growth on her throat, which Audrey believed was God’s punishment for her youthful habit of wearing blingy (not Bedes’ word) necklaces.
Throughout the middle ages, to commemorate Saint Audrey’s October 17th feast day, craftspeople made and sold silk necklaces commonly called St. Audrey’s Lace. Over time, the ‘t’ sound at the end of “Saint” migrated (in a process linguists call re-bracketing) and St. Audrey’s lace became “Saintawdrey’s Lace” and, eventually just tawdry lace. Finally, fashion being famously fickle, and the phrase no longer obviously connected to Saint Audrey, tawdry lace fell out of fashion and tawdry came to be used to describe more generally the cheap wares found at county fairs.
In The Winter’s Tale, written around the year 1610, Shakespeare establishes the sheperdhess Mopsa’s lack of sophistication by having her complain that she’d been promised “a tawdry lace and a pair of sweet gloves.”
And Samuel Richardson, in Clarissa (I can’t resist an opportunity to plug one of the greatest epistolary novels), writes:
That fiddling, parading fellow [you know who I mean] made us wait for him two hours, and I to go to a journey I disliked! only for the sake of having a little more tawdry upon his housings; which he had hurried his sadler to put on, to make him look fine…
Tawdry’s etymology is more interesting than its common and usually unremarkable contemporary use, though I did find a few tasty examples here and there, such as in 1890 when an unnamed critic (who I hope eventually figured out how to tell readers how he really felt) wrote in The Daily Chronicle that Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Grey was
~~It is~~ a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents—a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction—a gloating study of the mental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth, which might be horrible and fascinating but for its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophisings and the contaminating trail of garish vulgarity which is over all ~~Mr. Wilde’s elaborate Wardour-street æstheticism and obtrusively cheap scholarship.~~
And it might just be that I’ve been looking for it, or perhaps it’s the irresistible alliteration, but tawdry appears to have found new life in today’s news headlines. A sampling:
- Another week of lies and still Trump, the huckster, keeps his tawdry show going
- In Trump’s tawdry tales, we can respect the sinners without loving the sin
- Trump’s tawdry tweets have become the new normal
And my favorite, the tongue-twisting:
- Trump tales telling sign of tawdry times
En passant, if the origin of tawdry has you second-guessing its use, there are quite a few synonyms at your disposal. Might I, in the wordy spirit of Katexic, recommend meretricious, one of those words that doesn’t sound at all like what it means?
For more on tawdry, including quotations from authors ranging from Sylvia Plath to Lee Child and Thomas Ligotti, and the other two English words that end in -wdry (can you guess them without Google?), or any other Katexic Clippings WORD, point your browser at katexic.com/kuac
The other two words in English ending in -wdry: blowdry, bawdry
“Now,” I admonish them with poised palm, “there must be total silence. This means no coughs, no sniffs, no clearing of throats.” And they obey this unreasonable command; their bodies are silent, for I am their master. They are a noiseless maze of flesh. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” I continue, “you are about to see something that I need not tout with tawdry preliminaries.
This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto.