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shameless pleading






Or possibly a bear in a tutu.

Dear Word Detective: In the Awakening, by Kate Chopin, the main character’s young children are described as wearing “befurbelowed” clothing. Now, to me that sounded like they were wearing fur undergarments. But that sounded like a distinctly unsanitary and uncomfortable proposition. And since the children were well cared for and also lived in a hot, humid climate, it seemed an unlikely mode of dress. Checking my dictionary, I see that it refers to clothing that has frills on it. So shouldn’t we say “befrilledbelowed”? — J. Landis.

Hey, don’t knock fur underwear until you’ve tried it. As Head Berserker of our local Viking re-enactors group, I can assure you that nothing beats BVDs knitted from genuine Norwegian wolf fur when you’re pillaging an abandoned strip mall. Sure, you sweat like an elk in August, but that’s half the fun. Incidentally, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the nice folks at the Wapokeneta Ramada Inn about the recent fracas at their breakfast buffet. Lyle is really a nice guy, but he has a mead problem.

Oops. I just discovered that there really are Viking re-enactor groups here in the US. Who knew? I think it would be awesome if they took on those Civil War Bores. I’d buy a ticket to that, especially if we could somehow work dinosaurs into the mix.

Meanwhile, back at “befurbelowed,” that is a seriously strange word. Just for starters, it seems to be missing from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), from which not very many words, even very strange ones, are missing. To track down the word in the OED we have to first lop off the prefix “be” and then the suffix “ed.” Bingo, we now have “furbelow,” which the OED recognizes and helpfully defines as “A piece of stuff pleated and puckered on a gown or petticoat; a flounce; the pleated border of a petticoat or gown.” There are subsidiary definitions having to do with things, such as a certain seaweed, that resemble a furbelow, but the only interesting additional point to be made is that multiple furbelows are sometimes considered evidence that the wearer is flighty and unserious. A true fashion disaster for a Viking, obviously.

“Furbelow” first cropped up in English at the beginning of the 18th century (“Lady Revel … Discovers a purse in the Furbeloes of her Apron,” 1706), and the word still gets more than 136,000 hits on Google today, although at least the first few hundred are people asking what the heck it means. The first step in tracing the roots of “furbelow” is easy: it’s simply a modified form of “falbala,” adopted from the French, where it means “frill or flounce.” Unfortunately, that’s the end of easy street, because no one has a plausible theory of where “falbala” came from, although there are forms of the word in several European languages (e.g., the Spanish “farfala”).

If we can’t go forward from this point, we can still retrace our steps and take a closer gander at “befurbelow.” That “be” is an interesting prefix. We adapted it from the Old English preposition and adverb “bi,” which originally carried the sense of “about,” but later weakened to mean simply “near” or “at,” as is found in several modern words such as “below” or “between.” This “be,” when attached to a transitive verb, acts as an intensifier (e.g., “bespatter” means “to spatter all over”). But when stuck to an intransitive verb, an adjective or a noun, “be” has the magical power to transform it into a transitive verb. Thus “befurbelow” means “to furnish or decorate with a furbelow,” and “befurbelowed” means “decorated with furbelows.”

Incidentally, “befurbelowed” is sometimes used in non-clothing contexts to mean “overly elaborate or ornate,” as in The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s classic 1945 humorous memoir of her days raising chickens in the Pacific Northwest, in which she refers to inhabitants of a nearby town “tatting themselves up large, befurbelowed Victorian houses.”

2 comments to Befurbelowed

  • Harold Russell

    When you mentioned the Spanish word ‘farfala,’ I was immediately reminded of bow-tie pasta, also known as farfalle. It turns out that farfalla means ‘butterfly in Italian.

    Perhaps this is useful, or perhaps it merely pushes the question of the word’s origin back one step farther.

  • Jim Brown

    Harold got there ahead of me.

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