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Q From Karl Craig, Brisbane: I was wondering where the term gingerly originates. I usually associate it with the phrase to step gingerly meaning to be careful. Here in Australia, one might have said (in days of yore): ‘Your dad’s feeling gingerly this morning’. So here we have it indicating a degree of illness (possibly the result of too much of the good stuff the previous night). Can you shed any light on it?

A This will surprise you: gingerly is thought to come from a Latin root meaning “well-born”. It has nothing to do with the other sort of root, the tropical spice called ginger (whose name comes, much distorted, from a Dravidian language of the Indian subcontinent).

The Latin word was genitus, which is closely connected to other words associated with birth and reproduction, such as genital, congenital and progenitor. Strictly, genitus meant merely “born” or “begotten” (it’s the past participle of the verb gignere, to beget) but seems to have implied a person who was born into a noble or wealthy family. After about 1000 years or so, this turns into the Old French gensor, meaning delicate or dainty (from gent, noble) and 500 years later still is first recorded in English in much its modern form.

In its early days in English it was associated specifically with dancing or walking. If you did these things gingerly you took small elegant steps. In 1583 a writer referred to such dancers “tripping like goats, that an egg would not break under their feet”. As you might gather from this, the word was then rather negative in tone, suggesting a mincing or effeminate way of moving.

Our modern sense, of moving carefully so as not to injure oneself, cause damage or make a noise, first appears about 1600. I don’t know the Australian sense, but it does neatly express that idea of requiring cautious movement on a morning after the night before.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 May 2004

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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.

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Last modified: 15 May 2004.