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Dour about Dowers?

By Daniel Hubbard | November 29, 2009

I love words. Like people they have origins and even genealogies. They even have family groups and cousins both close and distant. They have ancestors and many will leave descendants. Words have their own personalities—definitions, shades of meaning and special ways of behaving. They change as they grow older. When reading an old document it is important to realize that just because we understand something by a word, does not mean that the word was used that way long ago. We might also not discriminate between words because the difference has become somehow less important for us, for example. When I give a talk, I might ask about a lectern for my laptop and be told about a podium that I can use. Today, those words are coming to mean the same thing but “podium” comes from the Greek word for “foot.” It is, at least in its origins, something to stand on.

The words that got me thinking about this are “dower” and “dowry.” Those are two words a family historian should know. They look like they must be close relatives and today they often get confused as if they were twins. They are connected but they aren’t the same thing at all. A woman entered a marriage with property called a “dowry.” That was property with which she had been “endowed” by her parents. That “dow” in “dowry” and the “dow” in “endow” isn’t a coincidence, both come from the Latin word “dotare” which means “to endow.” Not so surprisingly, “dower” also comes from “dotare” but it means a widow’s endowment from her husband’s estate. So, those two words “dowry” and “dower” are telling you about two very different phases of a woman’s married life—the first about her marriage, the second about her time as a widow.

Another close relative of those two words is “dowager,” a word that probably does not come up in your family history, unless you can claim descent from the widow of a nobleman, king or emperor. A dowager is a woman whose status relies on the titles of her late husband.

You might by now start to wonder if the “dow” in “widow” also comes from the same origin. Maybe widow means at its roots “one who has an endowment.” It might be tempting, but that “dow” word comes from a different word family altogether. Etymologists tell us that it comes from longer ago than Latin. It is from an Indo-European root meaning “to be empty.” Far from being a reference to an inheritance, it is a reference to poverty.

PS Dour, meaning stern or gloomy as in the post title, has yet another origin, a Scottish Gaelic word meaning obstinate.

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