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 willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

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