And sometimes words are just soooo interesting!

I’ve just been reading Khoi Vinh’s marvellous blog, Subtraction. In his post on “Ways I’m a Dork: Travel Edition” he describes the Grid-It Organizer from Cocoon. The Grid-It holds “all the paraphernalia — cables, remotes, pens, dongles, adapters, etc.” that most of us now need to pack for work trips (and probably holidays too).

The word paraphernalia caught my eye – it’s a great word, I think, and in Khoi Vinh’s post such a delicious contrast with the short, concrete words (cables, remotes, pens etc.) that followed it. I used to know but had forgotten its etymology, so I looked it up.

Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:


First Known Use: 1651
1: the separate real or personal property of a married woman that she can dispose of by will and sometimes according to common law during her life
2: personal belongings
3 a: articles of equipment : furnishings
b: accessory items : appurtenances
Medieval Latin, ultimately from Greek parapherna bride’s property beyond her dowry, from para– + phernē dowry, from pherein to bear
First Known Use: 1651

And here’s the one from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1650s, “a woman’s property besides her dowry,” from M.L. paraphernalia (short for paraphernalia bona “paraphernal goods”), neut. pl. of paraphernalis (adj.), from L.L. parapherna “a woman’s property besides her dowry,” from Gk. parapherna, neut. pl., from para– “beside” + pherne “dowry,” related to pherein “to carry” (see infer). Meaning “equipment, apparatus” is first attested 1791, from notion of odds and ends.

Fascinating, and thought-provoking.

By Marian Dougan

7 Responses

  1. “A woman’s property besides her dowry,” eh? Am I the only one who wonders what it is about English that we actually needed an exact term for this? What’s next “a man’s property besides the TV remote, his football club t-shirts and his collection of spoons”?

    1. You mean you’re allowed control over – ownership of, even – the remote???

      I think that’s what makes “parapnernalia” so fascinating – the fact that who owned what in a marriage was so strictly regulated by law and contract (not just in the UK). Especially as regards immovable property.

    1. Well, it certainly sounds far richer – a word to relish in the saying. Stuff’s got quite a pedigree too – but it suffers from overuse, don’t you think? (As for the spelling, I copied and pasted it as I’d sure I’d get it wrong!)

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