Friday, July 25, 2008

The changing definition of "comely"

One of the direct benefits of building one's library carefully is that you can become a defacto niche subject expert by being able to easily compare information when tackling a new work from the already well-rutted paths transversing the always-frothing frontier of the self-perpetuating intelligentsia. An indirect nice result is that you can sometimes glimmer how things become what they are today (and what they weren't back when).

Example of such is the meandering definition of 'comely' - a word which this scribe is oft wont to employ when describing, especially, the distaff portion of the population. I stumbled across this beaut whilst derivating 'pulchritude', another fav. Granted 'comely' has fallen out of frequency, a pity, due to its nasty single entendre sound. Growing-up I heard it used, in particular, in dual veins and the far more effective was to describe the appearance of a low/bad women when suitably cleaned-up (or otherwise made to look presentable).

My coffee-table reinforced Webster's 2nd edition - still my definitive source - puts 'comely' down as "handsome, attractive, ..." in the 1st definition, but, right after, denotes it as being "decent, suitable, proper, becoming, ...". This latter part leads to the alternative, albeit tongue-in-cheek, usage I've heard which is to comment upon (particularly a lass in attire inappropriate outside the boudoir) how "comely" one appears when not quite at Sunday best.

Cole Porter lyricized far better than I can tap out, but - to borrow with pride - "Times have changed and we've often rewound the clock". Maybe that's a tad much, but the online Merriam-Webster lead definition is "pleasurably conforming to notions of good appearance, suitability or proportion". Now "suitable" would never brush elbows with "proper", which, even today, retains its moralistic tinge. The kissing cousin of "suitable" is adequate and such is surely not "proper". All that said, where does "proportion" creep-in now? It's instructive, as well, that one of the synonyms for the Webster's 2nd edition is "graceful" and the only given for the (inferior) Internet take is "beautiful". As this blog's initial post expounded upon the deeper meaning of grace as part of its eponym, I need not go further that "beautiful" is something in a related but different realm than "graceful".

All this in weighted consideration, it would appear that "comely" has lost its vestigal virgin, so to speak, component. Even a lady such as the specimen to the right could be considered "comely" as long as she didn't stand too close to the Papal procession - unless, of course, our Holy Father was making an initial white hat pilgrimage to Las Vegas and our damsel then would be considered in native attire. Certainly Ms. McDonald fulfills the "proportionate" part of the new derivation. Ahem.

Let this etymology excursion also show how words change in our language, English, over time and such can be quite instructive when considering, for example, what the Founding Fathers truly meant in any given document. It's not just the archaic "Prey tell, Sir" that is the oddity to be considered. Of course - and to end on a punchline - the ladies above would still serve as the most fulsome examples of what our storied ancestors, in this case the first Mr. John Adams, had in mind when speaking of this land as an "abundant and munificent one"!