On going ‘gingerly’

28 Feb
Zingiber

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I worry about unduly is opening toilet doors.  It’s not a germ phobia, more a fear there’ll be someone in there and we’ll both end up incredibly embarrassed.

It occurred to me that the word for how I open toilet doors is ‘gingerly’ – which is a strange thing as ‘ginger’ is normally associated with spiciness, impact, or if you’re a redhead like me, a fiery temper.  The last thing we’d normally associated ‘ginger’ with is a delicacy of movement – surely it should mean to burst into a room, rather than approach it with trepidation?

As it turns out, ‘ginger’ and ‘gingerly’ have absolutely nothing in common. Ginger has quite well established linguistic roots – with many scholars arguing its roots back beyond Sanskrit to earlier Dravidian forms.  If you look at the Latin name for ‘ginger’, Zingiber officinale, you can clearly see the root of the root.  *ahem*.

But by contrast, ‘gingerly’ is described as ‘of obscure origin’ (real meaning = ‘we don’t really know how it ended up in the language’.)

The OED suggests that ‘ginger-‘ (as the first part of ‘gingerly’) may be related to words for ‘gentle’ or ‘gentlemanliness’, deriving perhaps from the Old French ‘gensor’.

This etymology would fit with the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’, which relate to an elegant style of dancing – “And I can daunce it gingerly” first appears in c.1520.  The word then moves from meaning ‘elegantly’ to meaning something more akin to ‘effiminately’ – as in this usage from 1583: “Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie‥tripping like gotes that an egge wold not brek vnder their feet.”

The sense of moving cautiously is also pretty early, here seen in 1534: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace [L. tenero ac molli passu].”  This definition of gingerly has continued to the modern day – although I particularly love this usage in Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 as it’s truly the definition brought to life: “[He] gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment.”

So it’s not a brilliantly clear-cut etymology, but as the OED argues, there’s no better alternative.  There is a Swedish dialect word gingla, gängla that means to totter, but it’s discounted firstly on account of the sounds, and secondly as it doesn’t carry the meaning of ‘elegantly’ as does the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’.

At least now I can console myself that I’m actually opening the toilet doors ‘elegantly’ 🙂

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