Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Barbra Streisand’s first silver-screen appearance in Funny Girl is a significant moment in American film. The click of her heels, the gold-framed mirror, the high collar of her leopard-print jacket, and finally, those two words: “Hello, gorgeous.” As biographer Neal Gabler put it, “When Streisand addressed her image in that mirror, she was asserting her beauty and validating a new kind of glamour, a new kind of star, a new kind of power.”
Though she didn’t know it, she was also drawing on a word with a long history and an unexpected evolution.
In ancient Rome, the Latin word for “whirlpool” was gurges. If you picture a whirlpool, it’s easy to see how the word was metaphorically extended in the third century A.D. to mean “throat.” You might imagine, for example, the contents of a wine glass swirling whirlpool-like down your gullet to your stomach. The word entered Old French as gorge “throat,” which eventually gave English both the noun gorge, meaning “a ravine with steep walls” and the verb to gorge, meaning “to overeat” — that is, to stuff too much food down your throat. But neither of those words led to gorgeous.
During the late Middle Ages, the wimple became a common article of women’s clothing. A wimple is a headdress that covers the head, neck, and chin, and sometimes the shoulders, leaving only the wearer’s face exposed. In Middle French, the part of the wimple that covered the throat was called the gorgias, though the word was often applied to the whole wimple.
Some nuns today still wear wimples, but they’re usually fairly simple wimples. Well-to-do women of the Middle Ages, though, would craft more elaborate ones, and intricate gorgias became so common and so fashionable that gorgias made the jump from noun to adjective, meaning “elegant” or “fond of dress.” This adjective entered Middle English as gorgayse and was later recast into the more common -ous pattern of other English words.
Today, gorgeous means “dazzlingly beautiful,” a far cry from its roots in whirlpools and gullets. The word has evolved so much that a fashionable woman from the Middle Ages would be confused by Barbra Streisand’s “Hello, gorgeous” line; after all, she’s not wearing a wimple, and you can’t even see her throat.
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