or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 11, 2005


Yesterday I was snarling about the ignorant deployment of the unword "beedy", and I was so caught up in it that I forgot to talk about the word "bead" itself. So let's have a look at that.

As is so often the case, we can guess that the consonants are invariant and play with the vowels to see if there's a relationship with any other English word, and it turns out that there is: "bead" is related to "bid".

And what, you may be asking at this point, could these words possibly have to do with one another? There's a fascinating connection between the two words, hidden by accidents of history and orthography.

"Bid", in its oldest and still most literal sense, means "to ask" or "to command"; to bid someone to do something, to bid at an auction, to forbid someone to do something, to bid someone a good day. A prayer is what else but a request of a deity? And what do some people use when they are transmitting prayers to--asking favours of, respectfully commanding the attention and action of--their deity of choice? Rosary or prayer beads. A "bed" or "bede" was originally a prayer: then it came to mean the rosary or chain of prayer beads, and finally the bead itself.

"Rosary", by the way, also has a fascinating genesis. From the Latin "rosarium", "rose garden", it refers not only to the classical association between the Virgin Mary and roses (the scent of that flower is said to precede her appearance) but also to the fact that rosary beads were once made of rose petals, rolled tightly into little balls, dried, and strung. (Variants of this technique are still used to make rosaries.)


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