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Paraphernalia

Pronounced /ˌpærəfəˈneɪlɪə/Help with pronunciation

We’re most familiar with this word to describe the equipment or materials that are used in some activity or craft. But it also has a negative meaning: of things that are unnecessary or superfluous, the trappings and impedimenta that have accreted around something as blown sand might collect around a pebble.

That makes the origin of the word deeply galling to those who are passionate about the rights of women. It derives from a term in Greek and Roman law; the root is the Greek parapherna, from para, distinct from, plus pherna, a dowry, so it referred to the bride’s personal property, things other than her dowry. All other goods became the property of her husband, as they did, for example, in England until the first Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870.

The legal sense was the first one that appeared in English, in medieval times; the senses of personal possessions or items of equipment or accessories only arose in the eighteenth century. By the time that Anthony Trollope wrote in 1862 about “the paraphernalia of justice: the judge, and the jury, and the lawyers”, it had begun to take on associations with outmodedness that it now sometimes has.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Sep. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-par2.htm
Last modified: 9 September 2000.