Release notes: twists in the tale of fairy and the history of beauty

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The image above shows some of the most significant words newly updated in OED Online (sized in proportion to the number of senses or phrases in each). Our selections are based on frequency – in general English usage, or of searches by users of OED Online – so the batches of words in quarterly releases are typically diverse enough to defy characterisation. However, in this case it is possible to discern a slight tendency towards the abstract, the ideal, and the ethereal.

For our release notes this quarter Graeme Diamond, Principal Editor, narrates the twists in the tale of fairy, and Edmund Weiner, deputy Chief Editor of the OED,  writes elegantly about the history of beauty.

Away with the fairies

The senses of the word fairy which appear earliest in English are perhaps somewhat surprising to the modern English-speaker, accustomed to ideas of tiny winged figures flitting through woodlands and casting magic spells. It is first recorded around the year 1330 in two senses: one meaning “enchantment, magic” and the other “a magical or enchanted land”. Around forty years later, we get a little closer to Tinker Bell et al with the sense “the supernatural or magical beings inhabiting such a land, considered collectively”. Finally, by the turn of the 15th century, in Chaucer’s tale of the Wife of Bath, we get to the word referring to an individual supernatural being with magical powers, although in early use it is unlikely that the beings referred to resemble the small fairies of later folklore. Shakespeare’s Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, are conceived of as being of full-sized human form, although admittedly the practicalities of representing them on stage may have something to do with this.

The sequence in which the meanings enter English is very explicable when one turns to the word’s etymology. It derives from the old French word faerie, itself constructed from fae (equivalent to English fay, and itself a word for a supernatural being) and the suffix –erie (English –ery). Effectively, therefore the word’s original meaning can be represented as fay-ery, i.e., broadly, “things relating to the fay”—such as magic, and enchanted lands. In French it retains this sense: an individual fairy would be referred to as a fée.

Once fairies as magical beings are established in English, however, whatever their size, their influence on the language is big. Aside from such varied things as fairy cakes, fairy tales, fairy godmothers, fairy lights, and being away with the fairies, some interesting trends emerge.

There is a whole swathe of colloquial and regional terms referring to natural or manmade objects thought to resemble things left by or belonging to fairies. So we have fairy arrows and fairy darts, referring to prehistoric flint arrowheads which are found lying on the ground; the foxglove as the fairy’s cap, fairy glove, or fairy petticoats, among other fairy-related names; fairy cups, used both of certain lichens or fungi and of the cowslip; fairy eggs meaning the round seeds of a number of tropical plants, when washed up on British coasts; and, showing that even fairies have to wash and eat, the scarlet cup mushroom as a fairies’ bath and the field mushroom as the fairies’ table.

Perhaps one of the most prominent of these terms is the fairy ring, a circular mark on the ground supposed to be a magic circle formed by fairies, particularly as part of a dance (in fact another, earlier meaning of the term refers to a dance in which fairies form a circle), and specifically, a circular band of grass differing in colour from the grass around it and caused by the growth pattern of certain fungi. Other explanations have, at one time or another, been put forward for these marks, among them that they might be caused by lightning, or by ants. The idea of fairy dances generally seems to have had a strong pull on the popular imagination: enchanting effects are often attributed to them, and in particular, if one happens across some fairies dancing, one should never join in, unless the prospect of (among many other fates) being drawn forever to fairyland, or being the recipient of a fairy curse, particularly appeals.

Nowadays of course most people would regard the likelihood of encountering fairies, whether cavorting about or not, as rather remote. Such was of course also the case in 1920, but the famous photographs of the “Cottingley Fairies” were made more notorious by the acceptance of them as genuine by Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame. The 1920 quotation at sense 3a of the OED entry, from a letter from Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society, to Conan Doyle, captures some of the enthusiasm which surrounded the pictures.

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Leaving fairyland for a moment, the word returns to the real world in a number of extended senses, informed by a number of the different characteristics attributed to fairies. In order of entry into English, we firstly have fairy used of a woman thought to possess extraordinary or magical powers (first used by Shakespeare in describing Cleopatra), and later, with a weakened sense of enchantment in play, of an attractive or seductive woman. Next the word is applied to a small or delicate person. Latterly (first recorded in 1895), and usually derogatorily, it is used as a term for an effeminate or homosexual man.

All these uses play on, to some degree, the traditional (if not ancient) representation of fairies as tiny, delicate, beautiful winged women, and it is this association that has given rise to one last intriguing phenomenon: the recent upsurge in usage of the spelling faerie—first attested in the works of Edmund Spenser, and used in the title of his epic poem The Faerie Queene—in modern writing with a supernatural element. The intention here seems usually to return to early conceptions of fairies as dangerous or powerful, and often also to escape connotations of small size. As the 2005 quotation at the first sense of the OED entry notes, “A ‘faerie’ does not flutter. A faerie may be as tall as a human or even larger. It may be ugly and twisted, malevolent and vicious.”


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Is there something about the concept behind beauty that’s too dazzling to keep the attention fixed on it for long? Looking at the history of the word, you get the feeling that it’s been forever slipping away from the glorious heights into trivialization on one side or hyperbole on the other.

The meaning we would all first think of: ‘That quality of a person (esp. a woman) which is highly pleasing to the sight’ first appears early in the 14th century. At that time an unknown lyric poet could write of his beloved: ‘Heo is cristal of clannesse, ant baner of bealte’ (She is a crystal of purity and a banner of beauty). Up until then they had used the inherited word FAIRNESS, which within a century or two was to diversify into ‘fineness of weather’, ‘impartiality’, and ‘blondness’ and so become too ambiguous to use with the ‘beauty’ sense.

Not long afterwards we find Chaucer using beauty in what the OED calls a ‘concrete’ sense, to mean ‘a beautiful person, especially an attractive woman’: ‘Wo worth þat beaute þat is rouþelees’ (heaven help a beauty who is without pity). From there it’s downhill to the postcard beauties and bathing beauties of the twentieth century. Round about the same time (the early 15th century) the word is applied to a beautiful thing, place, or animal. So in 1937 a certain C. Paddleford could write, in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘New pitted prunes are on the market. They are beauties, in shape, color, and flavor.’ Only a slight shift in meaning takes us to ‘an exceptionally good, impressive, or (ironically) egregious example of something’, for example, an earthquake, gaffes by airline personnel, or a black eye. On the basis of this, the Australians have provided the handy truncated version, beaut.

Meanwhile, by another small step, we arrive at ‘a beautiful feature or trait’ (the beauties of nature), which enables us to speak of ‘a pleasing or useful aspect of a thing,..a good point’ as its beauty; there doesn’t have to be anything especially beautiful about it: ‘The beauty of paddling is that any one of the crew can “take a spell” without throwing the rest much out’ wrote W. M. Baines in 1874. Finally, in 1977, the Particle Physicists seized on the word (arbitrarily, we are told) to name a kind of quark, which apparently is also referred to as ‘bottom’.

Back in 1443 or so, meeting a certain unwieldy derived adjective for the first time in the writings of the rather pompous Reginald Pecock, you might have been excused for predicting that it would get nowhere; he writes: ‘He [sc. a painter] settiþ þe iije colour into þe parfijt bewteful ournyng’ (he sets the third colour into the perfect beautiful decoration). You’d be wrong, of course: it soon edges its long-established synonym FAIR on to the hard shoulder of poetic use, largely because fair has developed such a range of other meanings that it is in constant danger of ambiguity. Beautiful gets into the English Bible, e.g., ‘Beautifull for situation, the ioy of the whole earth is mount Sion’ and soon Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is writing of ‘a very stately Palace…the name whereof was Beautiful’; by the time Christian’s wife is on her progress (Pilgrim’s Progress 2nd Part, 1684) the place is known as ‘the House Beautiful’, a phrase that captivates readers, commentators, and eventually interior decorators, as well as promoters of other things beautiful: ‘Send two cent stamp for “The Body Beautiful” and trial plan today’ (Ladies’ Home Journal, 1917).

There is something rather special about the word: is it the very unusual trigraph eau, reflecting its French origin, and managing to hold on to its central letter a? Or perhaps it’s the emergence, in the 16th century, of that long yoo-sound (Reginald Pecock would have said it with a much duller sound which you can hear if you say ‘bell’ in Estuary English style: ‘be-w-ty’)—a sound susceptible of even further lengthening (think of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Beau – ootiful Soo – oop! Soo – oop of the e – e – evening’). All those letters in the first syllable can be a source of trouble, however. To beautify (also dating from the early 15th century) ‘to make (someone or something) beautiful or more beautiful’ is occasionally confused with to beatify ‘to pronounce (a person) to be in enjoyment of heavenly bliss: ‘Mother Teresa…was beautified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II’ wrote someone in 2010.