My life as a disaster movie.

Dear Word Detective: The word “paraphernalia” means equipment or apparatus(es), but according my computerized dictionary it derives from a Latin root meaning “the bride’s possessions.” How did the bride’s possessions devolve into a hodgepodge of (perhaps extraneous) accessories? — Barney Johnson.

Before we begin, aren’t computerized dictionaries handy? About six months ago I acquired the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and it has literally saved my life. Not only can I search 20 volumes of text in seconds, but also, so far, it hasn’t tried to kill me, which is more than I can say for its “hard copy” predecessors. Last summer I was trying to reach a book some twit (namely me) had shelved near the ceiling of my study when a teetering pile of dusty dictionaries toppled, in a deadly lexicographical avalanche, onto my head and shoulders. It still hurts when I try to sign checks.

It is true, as you note, that “paraphernalia” comes from a Latin root meaning “the bride’s possessions,” but there’s more to the story than that brief definition indicates. The root is actually “parapherna,” from the Greek words meaning “beside the dowry.” The “paraphernalia,” in Roman and, later, English marriage law, were the possessions a bride brought to the marriage and kept as her own personal property. The key distinction was that the paraphernalia were considered the bride’s personal property, not part of the dowry (the money and property the bride’s family gave to the groom). If the husband later died, the wife kept her paraphernalia, while the dowry and all other property went to the husband’s male heirs.

As marriage law in England became a bit more equitable, the more general use of “paraphernalia” to simply mean “personal belongings” arose in the 18th century. This usage paved the way for the term to be applied to, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the articles that compose an apparatus, outfit, or equipment; the mechanical accessories of any function or complex scheme; appointments or appurtenances in general.”

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