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Morgantic Wives and Nubile Girls

Words are not always what they seem, and some apparently exciting specimens merely flatter to deceive. Others, less eye-catching superficially, turn out to be far more interesting once the surface is scratched.

Take two which appear to have little in common but are in fact fairly closely related - nubile and paraphernalia. The first conjures up delightful visions of the scantily clad young ladies who regularly adorn the Idler’s Page. The second prompts boring images of surplus baggage. Yet nubile has nothing to do with sylph-like appearance, sex appeal, and curves in all the right places. It derives from the Latine nubes meaning a cloud or veil, and literally applies to someone who is ready to marry.

The Romans started the custom of wedding veils to which traditionalists still adhere. Nubile merely describes a young lady eligible to wear one. Paraphernalia’s bridal connections are no more immediately obvious than those of nubile. The world is generally applied to apparatus or equipment, usually with connotations of complexity and complication. However, its ancient Greek origins are echoed in the antenuptial contracts which are now so popular as pre-emptive strike against the inevitable divorce squabblings over who gets custody of the TV set and the new lounge suite.

The Roman bride tended to be a lady of material and substance in her own right, and brought to her new husband’s house her own possessions as well as her dowry. Like the modern marriage dissolution agreement, it was important to distinguish between the two categories of property.

The Greek for dowry was pherne and for beyond para. With a little help from Latin, the two elements became paraphernalia - the wife’s goods held in her own name and “beyond the dowry”. Male greek fortune-hunters were thus prevented from getting their thieving hands on mama’s loot. The converse also applied when a man of a high rank married a woman of low station and her children could not subsequently inherit from their father. Such arrangements were described as matrimonium ad morganaticam - what we now call a morganatic marriage. The term derives from the German morgengabe for the customary gift from the newly wed husband to his bride on the morning after their marriage. The “morgantic” wife and her future children might be prevented from pillaging dad’s assets, but she is still entitled to her “morning gift”. Beats nubile any day.

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