WHEN SHE ISN'T pursuing lexicography, Katherine Barber is an avid ballet fan and volunteer with the National Ballet of Canada, as well as an alto in the choir at Solemn Eucharist at St. Thomas's. "My presence at St Thomas's is, in a convoluted way, thanks to Oxford University Press," says Barber. "When I was first hired, OUP sent me to Oxford, England, for four months of training at the Oxford English Dictionary. Bliss! I discovered the choirs at Christ Church, New College and Magdalen College, and started going to evensong every day--more bliss! That's when I fell in love with Renaissance church music. So when I moved to Toronto, I looked for a church choir where I could sing my beloved William Byrd, and there was St. Thomas's!" From her book, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs (OUP, 2006), we asked Katherine to pick six words that have something to do with church.
The story behind cretin is actually quite touching. Now, the cretinism we're talking about here is a specific type of mental retardation and deformation, and not just using cretin as a catchall term of abuse for someone you consider stupid. This medical condition is caused by a lack of thyroid hormone in an unborn or newborn child, often caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. In the days before iodized salt, it was a particular problem in landlocked parts of Europe, where people didn't have access to fish from the sea, which was the only source of iodine. So cretinism was quite common in the Swiss and French Alps. In the French dialect of that area, cretin was a variant of chretien, meaning "Christian," and was applied to these sorely afflicted individuals, the idea being to remind people that cretins were human beings with souls just like everyone else.
Maudlin is a corruption of the name Mary Magdalen. Indeed, Magdalen was pronounced and often spelled "maudlin" in the Middle Ages, which explains why there is a college in Oxford spelled Magdalen but pronounced "maudlin" by all but the unwary tourists! Now Mary Magdalen, who is mentioned by name in the Gospels only as a follower of Christ who watched at the crucifixion, was often identified in tradition with the unnamed "sinner" in Luke's Gospel who came to see Jesus, wept, and then bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her long hair. As a result, in art Mary Magdalen was often depicted as weeping, either in this particular incident or by the cross. So by 1600, maudlin was being used to mean "weepy." Not long after that, it was being used to designate any effusive display of sentimentality, especially by someone who is drunk. …