In a Word: This Is Gorgeous

Before Barbra Streisand could be gorgeous, a word had to travel a circuitous route into the English language.

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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.

Picture of a medieval woman
This portrait of a wimpled young woman was painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-15th century. Notice the gorgias covering her gorge. (Public domain)

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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Comments

  1. Good Lord Andy, what a long strange trip THIS word has gone through; and the journey was anything but gorgeous! Its connection to whirlpool is interesting if not uneasy. For a few seconds I “lost” my swimsuit at Raging Waters’ Vortex ‘ride’ from the force of the water last year.

    I never knew the term for the nun’s headdress was called a wimple. The nuns I see today when out and about have a simple ‘remnant’ form of it, usually with a cross. A far cry from the full-on habit the nun’s wore in 1963 as a 1st grader being grabbed by the arm and spanked in the hallway for being out of my seat, visiting friends. Never mind the incident at the L.A. Zoo where I’m grabbed again for being too entertained watching the monkey’s antics. (In the 3rd to 5th grade it was the ‘Monkees’ on TV).

    I love the 15th century portrait you chose. It’s gorgeous, even below the neck. So I end with thoughts of Christie Brinkley in a red Ferrari tossing her head and hair back with a wink and a smile, stopping to give Sister Barbra (in full nun habit) a ride to Wally World with “I’m So Excited” on the radio, as the car fades into the distance.

    (Upon entering the car, Sister Barbra does the sign of the cross, says “bless you my child”, then looks upward to say “oy vey!”)

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