This week’s word: “custom”

the top of King's College
the top of King's College

Good day to you, as they say here. The short version of the word for this week can be found here, on page 16 on the left-hand side, on The Cambridge Student‘s site. But the long version can be found here (I will try to put other long versions if the need arises, as well as to perhaps add extra bits and pieces to the weekly word here and there); I hope you enjoy it, at least a little:

“Hello again, my fellow fans of etymological exploration. I pray your holiday-time went well, and that Lent term in all its wintery grimness has not fallen too heavily upon you. By way of settling back into a routine, and because Cambridge is rather rich with such traditions, I propose that we look at a word that conveys the soothing rhythm of routine, namely, “custom.” I must thank my friend Mary for suggesting it.

As that old standby of definition, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) puts it, “custom” is something that has become “habitual or usual practice … [a] common way of acting … [the] usage, fashion, [or] habit (either of an individual or of a community).” People become accustomed to custom, as it were. Customs tend to vary from place to place and time to time, as you might imagine, and represent the collected body of tradition passed from one generation to the next. In this sense, appropriately, the word has been around in early forms of English since the 13th century.

“Custom” as such can also refer to regionalized or local law, legal tradition that through long use has acquired a certain jurisdictional weight. In medieval times, tenants beholden to a feudal lord paid their masters in customary service or in money rent. This has been extended into modern times to the tolls, taxes or duties placed by governments on goods exchanged across their borders, hence “the Customs,” i.e. the government agency assigned to collect such fees.

The Middle English “custume” comes from the Anglo-French word of the same spelling, from the Latin “consuetudinem,” from “consuescere,” meaning, “to accustom,” from “suescere,” from “suus,” related to the idea of possessing something, or “one’s own” (and here I have to acknowledge help from Merriam-Webster). The OED cites the Magna Carta’s use of “consuetudo,” and notes how the “magna custuma,” or “the great custom,” applied to inter-border export-imports, and the “parva customa,” or “the little custom” applied to the smaller operation of markets “within the realm.”

Interestingly, “custom” and “costume” have a shared heritage, as the OED observes, with the latter coming from the Italian version of the former, and meaning “use, wont, fashion, guise, habit, [or] manner: in other words, what you are accustomed to wearing by way of hair and clothes, and as it belongs to a particular place and time. As recorded by the OED, the first use of the word in this sense comes to us from an 1802 issue of the Edinburgh Review, with the line, “There is always a certain pleasure in contemplating the costume of a distant nation.”

As portrayed on the stage, an actor or actress dons the clothes of the character he or she is playing. Over time (and by that I mean by the early 19th century), current fashion was also referred to as the “costume” of the day. Incidentally, by the mid-19th century, regarding women’s clothing, the outer garment, gown or dress was the “costume” proper.

This leads to another interesting tie to “custom,” since patronizing a shop or store was to give it your custom, as it were, even as you hunted for your costume. The first usage of this meaning can be found in about 1596, in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” from act four, scene three, when Petruchio “quarrels” with the poor tailor, “Go, hop me over every kennel home … For you shall hop without my custom, sir: I’ll none of it: hence! Make your best of it.”

I hope you found that tidbit on customs and costumes at least marginally customary. In the meantime, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”


A new year, in Olde England, with a belated start to blogging, and a few thoughts on queues

me, back at the end of my first term

Recalling those heady days, back in August in Seattle, when I was so very sure I was going to blog about words post-Daily without prompting, and full of good intentions about doing so, I feel slightly silly now that it is January, and I am in England. Like the early 18th-century newspapers I have been studying, in which the editor would often begin by way of a long apologia, I figure I should start off with one of my own …

I got to Cambridge in early October and quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer Englishness of it all. It’s not like Canada, which is rather like England for beginners, or even America for beginners, for those come in from the other direction. There were a thousand subtle differences, from the way people drive to how they talk (of course) to what they eat (or don’t eat). In some ways, being in France or Germany or Spain would have been easier to handle, as they’re more blatantly different places, “foreign” countries. No, England tricks the American mind into thinking it’s someplace familiar, which is it is, but not really. Those “but-not-really’s” accumulated rapidly to the point of  disorientation. Other Americans expatriated here agree. England is a very different place, and one that takes a great deal of getting used to.

Between bouts of acute homesickness and slight starvation, the moments of lonely lucidity I could cobble together were mostly devoted to desperately beginning my “untaught” MPhil course. By “untaught,” as some of you know, and as I thought I knew going into it, I spent and now continue to spend most of my time reading. That’s not so bad, as you might imagine (reading really is rather nice), but also imagine reading by yourself. Everyday. By yourself. More on the slow madness of that process later. But the short version of it is is this: By the grace of God, and help from home, I made it through to Christmas break, which was mercifully long, having finished my intermediate paper, and now (in theory, anyway) working on the Big Paper, due in June.

All this is to say, I only just arrived back in Cambridge-town last week, and by way of addressing the many silly things I am encountering in this wacky place, I have made a sudden, spontaneous, and rather retro-active New Year’s resolution to finally blog more about what I am experiencing, the sillier the better. Many things strike me (as I suspect they would many of my country-men and women) as absurd, but in that gently English way that also makes you question your own sanity.

For those still inclined to read my etymologies, you will be pleased to note that my column has indeed continued from last term, which I write for one of the two student papers here, The Cambridge Student. As it might be a bit shorter this quarter, following an old habit I started at the UW Daily, I hope to blog about the extra bits and pieces that don’t quite make it into the print edition, as well as do some original “wording,” as it were, on here too. I promise to finally get around to “serendipity” while I’m at it. I may also post up my columns from last quarter, and will certainly put up the ones for this term, starting with tomorrow’s (“custom”).

an official taxi queue in the city centre

As of sort of introduction, however, I must say a little bit on the very British love of queues (yes, they really spell it that way). A queue is of course a line. Being someone raised in an Army family, I am familiar with lines and paperwork. But the British have raised line-making to a magnificent art, an admirably civilized, living, breathing statement of order and dignity, of politeness, of “muddling through,” or, more practically, of staying organized. They “queue it up” at all the usual places: grocery stores, banks, restaurants, cinemas, libraries, bookstores, etc.

But they also queue in places Americans normally don’t, such as the bus stop. Yes, we wait for the buses in America in lines, but we are put to shame by the self-discipline and tenacity of the English in their bus queues. In the driving rain, or when there is no bus at all (in fact, long before it arrives), they are lined up, in perfect order. It’s very impressive. Their buses are nice enough, but I would say that Seattle’s buses and its bus system are just as pleasant (and they really are, don’t get me wrong). And yet the way they wait in lines for them here would make you think they are waiting for a train, or an old-fashioned plane. And the disgust for those who dishonor the queue is apparent.

Just the other day at McDonalds (again, yes, they have them here too), a young lady was getting very flustered at the sloppy queues that had formed.

“There’s room for at least four queues!” she grumbled to no one in particular. Quickly four queues appeared, as the shame of not being rightfully queued affected all who happened to hear.

Queues are also a way of measuring frustration in general. The one grocery store in the city centre (if you asked where “downtown Cambridge” is located, you will get a funny look, believe me), a Sainsbury’s, is always seemingly swarming with people as they recreate the Battle of Britain (if it had led to a German invasion). On the weekends, and in the evenings, it is chock-full of hungry English people, and the poor staff members are hopelessly outnumbered as they dart in and out of the aisles, restocking an ever-dwindling supply of soda crackers and tinned meat (including canned hot dogs, more on that later).

Anyway, one day, during a particularly busy moment at “Insane-bury’s,” I overheard a friendly looking older English man (really a sort of postcard image of the sweet-‘ol-English-grandpa) warn a fellow grandfather on the sidewalk to “not go in there … the queues are bloody bullocks.” This was actually one of the first times I had ventured into the store, and I quickly rued the moment I crossed the queue-crossed threshold. Since then, I have acquired a healthy respect for British queues, and those who queue in them.

Indeed, I could tell something was very wrong today at McDonalds (yes, I ate there again this week: I needed the calories!). A gaggle of kids was clogging the tills, were the annoyed workers were shouting, “can I help?!” to the next person in the milieu. It turns out, they weren’t English at all, but French teenagers here on a school trip.

“That explains it,” I thought. As soon as the French left, proper queues returned. It might be grey with a capital “E” outside, but by gosh, the queues were queued as they ought to have been, and all was right again in Cambridge.

But enough on queues.

Look for more, albeit probably shorter, thoughts on my brief time in England on a more regular basis. Thank you for reading, and as they tell Americans never to say, because we “just cannot say it right,” cheerio!