The Grail Code 
A maudlin history

“Etymology” is an uninviting word - which is a pity, because etymology itself is a lot of fun. By finding out where our words came from and how they’ve changed, we can learn a lot about our history and ourselves.

Take, for example, the ordinary and familiar word “maudlin,” meaning morbidly sentimental. Where does it come from? We’ll spare you the suspense: it comes from “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene.

Popular images of St. Mary Magdalene traditionally showed her shedding penitential tears. Artists often pushed the poor Magdalene to the limits of lachrymosity - so much that her name became a popular byword for anything ostentatiously weepy. “Maudlin,” in fact, is the traditional English pronunciation of “Magdalene,” as in Magdalene College (Oxford or Cambridge), which is still pronounced “Maudlin.”

Now, if you’re wondering what all this has to do with the Holy Grail, you obviously haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, and we envy you.

In the novel, you see, Mary Magdalene was the Holy Grail, who carried the blood of Christ in the form of the child of Christ - an idea taken directly from the pop conspiracy bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, whose authors unsuccessfully sued Dan Brown for plagiarism.

Among the many historical whoppers in Dan Brown’s book, one of the whoppingest is that the name of Mary Magdalene “was forbidden by the Church.” (It’s on page 254 of the hardcover edition, in case you keep it by your pillow for handy reference.)

Now, we could refute that silly bit of nonsense any number of ways. We could compile lists of medieval churches and other institutions dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. (Both Magdalene Colleges come to mind.) We could jot down all the references to her in medieval literature. We could find her on calendars of saints and in popular hymns.

But we don’t have to do any of that work, because the most compelling evidence is right here in our English language, where it’s accessible to anyone.

From our language itself we know that Mary Magdalene’s name was on everyone’s lips. She was one of the most familiar objects of popular piety - so popular that her name turned into a common everyday adjective.

We don’t need any more evidence than that. Our language proves that people were mentioning the name of Mary Magdalene all the time.

See? We told you etymology was a lot of fun.

76 Responses to “A maudlin history”

  1. Pauli Says:

    Thanks for adding to my ever-increasing knowledge of the language! As an American I hope to someday be able to actually speak English.

  2. xavier Says:

    Christopher & Mike:
    Catalan has a few expressions derived from Miram Magadelena.
    One is plorar com una magdalena Which is to cry like a Magdalena.
    semblar una Maria Magdalena which is used to describe who have very long hair.

    I’m not sure if the sweet bun that’s super popular in Spain (called a magdalena) that you dip in milk and eat with chocolates is in her honour.

  3. Pauli Says:

    Remember Madge - that lady from the Palmolive commercials - is her name derived from Mary Magdalene?

  4. xavier Says:

    In many European languages Magda is also a short nickname for Magdalena.
    Ain’t etyomology fun? :D


  5. Aumgn Says:

    Just a little factoid: while those in the other place do pronounce Magdalene as ‘Maudlin’, in Cambridge we always used ‘Mag-da-lene’ of the college which goes by that name.

  6. Sue Sims Says:

    Sorry to pick nits, but it’s only ‘Magdalene’ in the Other Place*; in Oxford, we have a ‘Magdalen’ College.

    *Everyone who’s worth knowing realises that’s it’s C——e which is the Other Place, founded as it was by men who’d been kicked out the original university. Though one has to admit that C.S.Lewis, who was a fellow of first the Oxford and then the Cambridge college, used to call Magdalen the ‘impenitent’ and Magdalene the ‘penitent’.

  7. Fruma Klass Says:

    Do you suppose Proust’s madeleines were actually named for MM? If so, wouldn’t that give an extra fillip to his memories?

  8. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Mary Magdalene again Says:

    [...] So if Mary Magdalene escaped from sin to become a saint, that was no slander: it was the highest possible praise one Christian could give another. As for the supposed attempt of the Church to suppress the memory of Mary Magdalene, a brief survey of the enormous number of medieval churches dedicated to her quickly pops that balloon. After Mary the Mother of Jesus, it would be hard to find a more popular saint, or one whose cult was more enthusiastically encouraged by that nasty old patriarchal establishment. (We talked a little about that more than a year ago.) So happy Mary Magdalene day, everyone, and don’t be afraid to celebrate it in a perfectly orthodox way. How should we celebrate? Oh, I know: we could imitate her example and bring the good news of Christ’s resurrection to tired old Christians who are sinking into despair! Or we could have cookies. [...]

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