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Pronounced /ˌleɪbrɪˈtɪfərɪ/Help with pronunciation

This rare word for the practice of wearing labrets just might be on the point of a renewed burst of usage because of the craze for body piercing.

A labret, from the Latin for “lip”, is an ornament worn through the upper or lower lip, originally used in reference to several South American, African and other peoples who wore such ornaments (often of stone, gold, or rock crystal).

It seems to have been coined around 1884 by the American scientist Dr William Healey Dall, the first man to make a systematic exploration of the then new US territory of Alaska. A later appearance of the word name-checks him:

But Eskimo women, in company with their husbands, had a more barbarous fashion than tattooing, called by Dall “labretifery.” So far as is known, it was practised only by those living west of the Mackenzie River; indeed, the habit prevailed much more widely among the men.

Women of all Nations, by Thomas Athol Joyce and Northcote Whitridge Thomas, 1942.

Labretifery combines labret with Latin fer–, to carry, bring, or bear, plus the abstract noun suffix “–y”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Mar. 1998

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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.
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Last modified: 7 March 1998.