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Warren Clements: Word Play

A resolute protector weds a pure lock picker Add to ...

The nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton are slated for April 29. That should give us all time to figure out why the marriage ceremony is referred to as nuptials. Preliminary answer: It dates back to the Latin verb nubere, to marry, which also gave us the word nubile.

Of more pressing concern is Middleton’s formal title. According to an Associated Press report, although William is likely to be made Prince of Wales if his father, Charles, ever ascends to the throne, Charles owns that title for the moment, so Kate can’t be called the Princess of Wales. One alternative is “Her Royal Highness Princess William of Wales,” but nobody thinks too much of that one, even if Marie-Christine von Reibnitz became known as Princess Michael of Kent after marrying Prince Michael of Kent, a first cousin of the Queen.

William isn’t a bad name. Traced back through the German Wilhelm and the Old German Willihelm (“will helmet”), it means resolute protector. The female German form is Wilhelmina, and the wordsmith in me wishes we could invent nuptials between a Prince Michael and a Princess Wilhelmina, just so the wedding invitations could bear the short forms of those names: Mickey and Minnie.

Kate is short for Catherine, believed to derive from the Greek word katharos, meaning pure. In contrast, according to the Bodleian Library’s 2010 book The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699, Kate in the late 1600s was another name for a “pick-lock,” a crook with a knack for bypassing security systems. A “rum kate” was a clever lock picker.

A kate was also a skeleton key in the underworld jargon of the 1700s and 1800s, and a handy element in the rhyming slang of London in the late 1800s. “Kate and Sydney” meant a steak-and-kidney pie. “Kate Karney” (or Carney), based on a performer popular in the 1890s, was rhyming slang for army. So Kate is, like William, a resolute protector in her military guise, but an overrider of protections in her pick-lock outfit.

It would make sense for Kate to celebrate her marriage to William by turning cartwheels, because those lateral somersaults are also known as Catherine wheels. The term originated in the grisly saga of St. Catherine of Alexandria. According to legend, St. Catherine was ordered to be clamped to a spiked wheel, an instrument of torture, after she proved too good a Christian proselytizer for the liking of an early-4th-century Roman emperor. . One story says her bonds miraculously broke each time the wheel was turned. Another says the wheel itself shattered into tiny pieces.

Alas, Catherine didn’t live to brag about the miracle, since she was promptly beheaded. But she became the patron saint of spinners, millers, nurses and many others, and the Catherine wheel, the name given to the spiked wheel in her memory, was later used metaphorically for a type of window, a revolving firework and the cartwheel.

I was going to speculate that “cartwheel” was a shortening of “Catherine wheel,” rather than just an allusion to the wheel of a cart, but the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for Catherine wheel in that sense dates from 1881, 17 years after the first reference to cartwheel.

Whatever names and titles the Royal Family decides upon, they will be transitory, even if William one day becomes William V. In his 1994 book Naming Canada: Stories About Canadian Place Names, Alan Rayburn tells of Sorel (now part of Sorel-Tracy), a city northeast of Montreal named after army captain Pierre de Saurel, who received the land as a grant in 1672. In 1787, after Britain’s Prince William Henry visited Sorel, the place was renamed William Henry in his honour.

William Henry reigned as William IV from 1830 to 1837. Twenty-three years later, the city restored the name Sorel. “By 1906,” Rayburn writes, “archivist Pierre-Georges Roy reported that William Henry was totally forgotten.” One more reason to go with Mickey and Minnie.

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