/bi:d/. A small, usually spherical, piece of jewelry. A drop of moisture. A bubble. A small globule. A bead on a rosary. A prayer.
A few weeks ago, while hunting for forgotten treasures on and between the pages of books at a thrift store, I found myself flipping through an old "daily devotional." One of the bits of beautifully handwritten marginalia read, "give us this day our daily bead." This slip of the pen, or lapsus calami if you’re feeling insufferable and tweedy, turned out to have its own kind of truth.
The word bead comes to us from the Old English gebed (prayer), which in turn evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhede- (to ask or pray), which likely comes from an even earlier meaning to urge or press.
Bead came to have its common modern meaning of a small ornament thanks to the practice of using rosary beads—beads threaded on a string—to count prayers, a practice described with phrases like "counting one’s beads" or "telling one’s beads." If, like me, you grew up far away from Catholicism, you’ve surely seen rosaries elsewhere. Perhaps in Shakespeare, as when Richard II declares "I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads," in other words, he would trade valuable gems for a rosary. Or if your diet was less heady, rosaries abound in movies and television (though I’m still waiting to find another person who first learned what a rosary was thanks to that great spirit guide Billy Joel, who sang to the luckless, arguably late Virginia, "You didn’t count on me / When you were counting on your rosary."
Eventually, the word bead came to mean not just the prayers being counted but the beads themselves. In this way bead is a figure of speech known as metonymy, or referencing one thing or concept using the name of something closely associated with it. For example, we might talk about our native tongue, to refer to our first language, or our car as "our wheels." Though, technically, calling a car a set of wheels is a specific form metonymy call synecdoche, using a part of something to refer to the whole—or vice-versa. A classic example of synechdoche is "all hands on deck" where, presumably the captain expects more than just disembodied hands to appear.
Meanings tend to expand over a word’s lifetime. The word bead came to describe not just the round, threaded beads on the rosary, but any kind of small, vaguely spherical object, such as the sight on a gun, the source of phrases such as to "draw a bead on something," or "beads" in mid-20th century crime fiction referring to morphine tablets, or to the "beads of sweat" that form on my forehead when I try to say (or explain) in sequence, the words metonymy and synecdoche.
The rosary part of those rosary beads is also notable. Plants and gardening have long been metaphors for spiritual and artistic practices (note I’m sparing you an attempt to elaborate on the difference between metaphor and metonymy here). The word rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, which referred to a collection—a garland—of roses. Like the word anthology—originally used to refer to the act of flower gathering that came to be used as a word for a collection of poetry, and then writing of all kinds—rosary was taken up as the name for a series of prayers, specifically Paternosters and Ava Marias, and then generalized to the string of beads used as a memory device to keep track of them.
Roses, the Greek goddess Aphrodites’ flower, have been a potent symbol for so long—of youth, beauty, Cupid’s bribe, vitality, virginity, secrecy, and so on—that they’ve arguably come through the other side of symbolism to meaninglessness. Umberto Eco, in the postscript to his novel The Name of the Rose—a book-length exploration into semiotics, signs and symbols in the shape of a 14th century, Sherlockian Franciscan Friar’s adventures—wrote that he chose the title because "the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left."
If that’s you, you might perhaps take heart in H. L. Mencken’s famous quip that "An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup."
So it stands to reason that many words and phrases derive from the rose. Of the many not-yet-archaic words and phrases related to them—rosacea, rosette and the rosy-billed pochard among them—sub rosa deserves its own note. A Latin phrase that has been carried unchanged into English, to communicate sub rosa is to do so in confidence or literally "under the rose." In fact, Roman banquet rooms often had roses painted on them as a reminder to to those gathered there that what happened in the Roman banquet hall stayed in the Roman banquet hall.
As one of those Latin holdovers that lends a bit of sophistication where it appears, sub rosa appears in deep, heady works; as a fossilized phrase it shows up in writing of all kinds, low and high, formal and informal. But an appearance that has stuck with me—both because I read it at a particularly formative time in my growing attention to language and because the experience described was one still very fresh in my mind—is found in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where he writes vividly of particularly painful athletic drills, such as the kind we called "suicides:"
Puker-drills are really meant to do nothing but hurt you and make you think long and hard before repeating whatever you did to merit them; but they’re still to all outward appearances exempt from any kind of VIII-Amendment protest or sniveling calls home to parents, insidiously, since they can be described to parents and police alike as just drills assigned for your overall cardiovascular benefit, with all the actual sadism completely sub rosa.