Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Anachronistic yuks

I'm listening to "Radio Boston," a local show on public radio, do a segment about Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the string of parks and waterways we call the Emerald Necklace. Nice, until the three chatters began to chuckle about Olmsted's original name for the project: the Jeweled Girdle. "Racy," one of them called it.

Not really. For the first 900 years of its recorded history, girdle meant simply "A belt worn round the waist to secure or confine the garments; also employed as a means of carrying light articles, esp. a weapon or purse," says the OED. The tie around Brother Cadfael's robe, the belt on which the household keys are carried, a decorative sash -- all have been called girdles.

But the OED's first citation for girdle meaning a kind of elasticized corset worn below the waist  dates only to 1925. Since the Emerald Necklace project began in 1878, and Olmsted died in 1903, it seems very unlikely that he was acquainted with the girdle as an uncomfortable specimen of what we now call "shapewear." As for "racy," well, I'm guessing the guy who offered that opinion was thinking of a garter belt, an obsolete item (practically speaking) but one still considered sexy in some circles.


Kay L. Davies said...

He sure must have been thinking about a garter belt, because there's nothing racy about the garment in your photo.
I remember my mother and grandmother insisting I wear a girdle like that under straight skirts when I was straight and thin myself. LOL
Anyone who doesn't know the old meaning of the word hasn't read any classic books, that's all. I knew a girdle was a sash or a belt, to which a woman attached her purse, before I was 10.

—Kay, Alberta, Canada

Ø said...

All underwear is racy, to a certain kind of mind.

John Burgess said...

I'm hard pressed to think of a garment less 'racy' than a girdle. Clearly, this is a group finding titillation in book knowledge utterly divorced from practical knowledge.