The Grammarphobia Blog

In the gingerbread doghouse

Q: You recently suggested on WNYC that the adjective and adverb “gingerly” may be related to the noun “ginger.” In fact, “gingerly” comes from an Old French word for “gentle” while “ginger” is derived from a Sanskrit word for the root that gives us the spice.

A: You got me. And so did quite a few other listeners to the Leonard Lopate Show. The two words have two entirely different roots, so to speak.

“Ginger,” which is by far the older of the words, has been studied exhaustively by etymologists – “deservedly so, for its ancestry is extraordinarily complex,” says the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

One of the more exhaustive studies cited by Ayto is a 74-page monograph by the British linguist Alan S.C. Ross. (Professor Ross is perhaps better known for coining the terms “U” and “non-U” in reference to upper-class and not-so-upper English.)

Ayto traces the English noun “ginger” back to the Sanskrit srngaveram, a word that describes the horn-shaped root of the plant. But the Oxford English Dictionary speculates that the origin of “ginger” might go back even further – to a pre-historic Dravidian name.

Either way, a vernacular version of the Sanskrit word passed into Greek and Latin before showing up in Old English as gingiber and gingifer around the year 1000.

The adverb and adjective “gingerly,” on the other hand, comes from the Old French word gensor, meaning pretty or delicate.

The earliest citation in the OED for the adverb is from a 1519 play: “Daunce we, daunce we … I can daunce it gyngerly.”

The adjective first appeared in a 1533 English translation of the works of the Latin playwright Terence: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace.”

At first, “gingerly” referred to walking or dancing with elegant steps. But by the early 17th century, the word was being used to describe moving with extreme caution, reluctance, or distaste.

Here’s an example from The Parliament of Love, a 1624 comedy by Philip Massinger: “Prithee, gentle officer, / Handle me gingerly, or I fall to pieces.”

What about the name “Ginger”? Does it come from “ginger,” “gingerly,” or something else? I discussed this in an Aug. 4, 2008, blog item about nicknames.

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