From St Audrey to “tawdry”

Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak can’t be happy with The Economist calling his a “tawdry victory” in the recent general election. But how did a saint lend her name to something so cheap as “tawdry”?

For that is what “tawdry” means: cheap, showy, tacky. And yet the word comes from the name of a saint. It is a corruption of “St Audrey”.

No disrespect was meant to the saint. It was used to describe the laces sold at St Audrey’s fair. They were called “tawdry lace” and must have been showy or cheap.

I have never heard of “tawdry lace” before but came across the phrase when I looked up the etymology, origin, of the word, ”tawdry”. It’s short for “tawdry lace” and subsequently came to mean “cheap” and “showy”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It can also mean “vulgar” and “tacky” (Collins) and “ignoble” (Merriam-Webster).

From what I just read, St Audrey was anything but cheap or vulgar. But the high-born princess Etheldrida, who later became St Audrey, loved to dress up in her youth – and came to regret it later.

“St Audrey died of a tumour in her throat, which she considered to be a just retribution, because in her youth she had for vain show adorned her neck with manifold splendid necklaces.” That’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says citing the Anglo-Saxon monks, the Venerable Bede and Aelfric.

St Audrey, who lived in the seventh century, was one of the four saintly daughters of Anna, the king of East Anglia.

She took a vow of perpetual chastity and, though married twice, she remained a virgin. She is the patron saint of Ely, where St Audrey’s fair was held, and those infamous “tawdry laces” were sold.