corsé

The last couple of posts have dealt with words derived from Latin corpus ‘body.’ That original evolved to Old French cors, from which came the diminutive corset, literally ‘little body.’ That’s not a bad euphemism for a garment designed to compress the central part of a person’s body and make it look littler than it actually is. Noah Webster defined the word in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as ‘something worn to give shape to the body,’ with an implication that the unnatural shape produced by a corset is more pleasing than the natural one. Webster went on to add that corsets are “used by ladies and dandies.” The sarcastic Ambrose Bierce had recourse to the word in his The Devil’s Dictionary of 1911 when he gave this definition of adamant: ‘A mineral frequently found beneath a corset. Soluble in solicitate of gold.’

But back to linguistics. Modern French generally stresses a word on its final syllable, and in the case of corset no longer pronounces the -t at the end of that final syllable, so when Spanish borrowed corset from French it spelled it phonetically as corsé. The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española gives this definition: ‘Prenda interior armada con ballenas usada por las mujeres para ceñirse el cuerpo desde debajo del pecho hasta las caderas.’ Note that there’s no mention of dandies.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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