Something that is tawdry is cheap and gaudy. The word dates to the seventeenth century, and was also a noun, meaning “cheap, showy finery,” although only the adjective is much used today. In his 1676 play The Plain Dealer, William Wycherley writes of
taudry affected Rogues, well drest.
And in another Restoration comedy from the same year, The Man of Mode, George Etherege writes,
A Woman that Can doat on a senseless Caper, a Tawdry French Riband, and a Formal Cravat.
Tawdry comes to us from tawdry lace, an alteration of St. Audrey’s lace, a silk neckerchief popular with women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term tawdry lace is about a century older than the adjective, appearing in the mid-sixteenth century. In his Shepheardes Calendar of 1579, Edmund Spenser says,
Binde your fillets faste, And gird in your waste, For more finesse, with a tawdrie lace.
The name comes from the story of Æþelðryþ or Ethelreda, also known as Audrey, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess, the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia. Audrey’s tale is recounted by Bede in his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History and by Ælfric in his late tenth-century Lives of Saints. It is said that Audrey took a vow of perpetual virginity and managed to get through two marriages without sleeping with either husband. Her first husband died before he could get her into the marital bed, and the second marriage was eventually annulled, much to the relief of the very frustrated young man, who had gone so far as attempting to bribe the local bishop to release her from her vow and who, when she fled his advances, had chased after her across England. After the annulment, Audrey took holy orders and went on to found an abbey in the town of Ely in East Anglia. Audrey died of a large tumor on her neck, which she attributed to punishment for having worn many expensive jeweled necklaces in her younger years.
After Audrey’s canonization, it became fashionable for medieval English women to wear silk scarves around their necks in tribute to her. Such scarves, and other articles, were sold at the fair held each year on her feast day. The merchandise at this fair was the type of stuff that you would find at any tourist trap, cheap and gaudy, hence the association with finery of inferior quality. St. Audrey’s lace may have been tawdry, but the woman was not.
“tawdry, n. and adj.,” “tawdry lace, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1989.
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Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton