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Pronounced /bɪˈdaɪz(ə)nd/ or /bɪˈdɪz(ə)nd/Help with pronunciation

To bedizen is to dress up in a gaudy way:

But every time one of the trapezoidal doors on Douglas Stein’s set blows open, it is to let in a bewigged and bedizened buffoon very nearly her match.

New York Times, 4 Jun. 2010.

Despite this example, if we were true to the history of European culture, we might argue that it is only women who can be bedizened. It would be fruitless to do so, of course, because its users apply the word as often to men as to women, as well as to houses, cars, Christmas trees, theatrical sets and anything else that can be accused of being decked out with finery to vulgar excess.

The female connections exist because the word is linked to distaff, which people now use most often for matters relating to females. That’s because spinning thread with the yard-long wooden rod called a distaff was traditionally women’s work. The staff part of the word presents no difficulties, but few of us now know that the dis beginning derives from an ancient Low German source that meant a bunch of flax. (The implication that the distaff was first used for spinning linen thread, not wool, is confirmed by the archaeological evidence.)

Nearly 500 years ago, the verb dizen appeared, presumably from the same source as dis (though nobody knows how), which meant to dress a distaff for spinning. A century or so later it started to refer to decking a person or a thing with finery. Within decades, be- had been added to it to make the verb stronger. Ever since, bedizened has implied that the bedecking has gone to excess.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Sep. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-bed1.htm
Last modified: 18 September 2010.