Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Linguistics and Jesters

The linguist in me was aroused this morning so I bring you a word of the week. The following is based mostly from information I gleaned off of online dictionaries that had shortened etymological facts at the end of the definition.

Note: I’m an EMERGENCY metaphor technician. The person who administers first aid before the real paramedics can get to the scene. If you don’t want to take my word for it, feel free to visit your own etymological sources. I just hope I point people down the right path.

Word for the week: demure

One of my family’s favorite movies is The Court Jester. It’s kind of an old movie but very funny, starring Danny Kaye and a very young Angela Lansbury. In it, the guy who’s been plotting from the beginning uncovers in front of the king the true identity (though he gets it somewhat wrong) of the Court Jester. While speaking of the Jester’s accomplice, he says “And this demure maid…”

The phrase bugged me because he spoke in an obvious fashion of dislike and disgust that I had to find out what demure meant. As it turns out, he was speaking very correctly by calling her demure, but incorrectly at the same time, and none of it was derogatory (though I’m sure his character thought it was).

Demure has many aspects of different languages and differing ages woven into it so that its original meaning is conjecture at best (at least by me. Any historical linguists who want to weigh in on this?)

In our language today, it means reserved, modest or shy, usually said of a woman or of clothing.

First there was the Latin sense of maturus, to ripen or mature. Then there was the Old French word mur meaning grave. This gave way to another old French word demoure, meaning remain or stay. This made its way into Middle English as demure meaning sober, serious, or reserved.

The maid in question is definitely mature, serious, sober, reserved and dedicated. But she is by no means shy, nor does she wear clothing that looks serious or sober.

She is not reserved. She’s a spy in the castle of her enemy, steals the King’s key, and hits people over the head with wooden beams. She is modest in her own way, that is, she doesn’t flaunt her beauty purposefully, though others do it for her and give her compliments.

Anyways, I just found it funny that the bad guy, who up until that line was doing a pretty good job at being a bad guy, suddenly uses what might be a compliment and might be simply a misplaced description to give his enemy’s accomplice a bad reputation. In the setting of the story, I assume it would have been seen as correct and right for a woman to be demure: a little woman who stays at home and is dedicated to running the household while being shy and modest.

In essence, he wasn’t insulting her. He was simply pointing out that she was a commoner and shouldn’t be sitting next to the king.

I find this fascinating. It’s amazing how many different shades of meaning there are for words. It’s like looking at paint samples. (Oh yes, here comes the metaphor.) If I look at a wall in a room, I might call it white. But if I go to a paint store and try to pick out the exact color, I will come away with 100 samples of white, off-white, egg shell white, cloud white, chalk white, etc. And they will all look incredibly different when next to each other. The wall I was looking at might even have been yellow in comparison and I just didn’t know it.

This is why it’s useful and fun to know the exact meaning of words and to distinguish between words of similar meaning that have different emphasis.

1 comment:

  1. I have always been intrigued by this word.

    Ravenhurst calls her demure simply to make a poetic contrast. We might paraphrase his statement as "this maid whom you perceive as shy and reserved is actually the brazen accomplice of the Black Fox!"

    As given by the OED, "demure" can also have the sense of being "coy in a way that is not natural to the person or to one of his years or condition". I would define it as follows. Calling someone demure is to emphasize the attractive quality of the modesty and restraint resulting from their maturity.

    Some will point to the variation in a word's meaning across dialects or idiolects to cast doubt on non-empirical or metaphysical statements. (Wittgenstein may be a good example, but I haven't looked much into his work.) There is some truth to this. However, given the limited semantic range of most words, I am more inclined to see these variations as different basis sets by which an invariant object is described.