TV coverage of Her Late Majesty's demise and the Accession of the new King has focused attention on funereal language in general. And in particular a word we rarely get to hear or read, catafalque, has intrigued people.... That set me thinking about where other language of funerals comes from. It’s perhaps surprising how many of the words listed and discussed below are loanwords. Of catafalque, bier, hearse, coffin, funeral, grieve, mourn, bury, widow(er), grave and tomb, only bier, mourn, bury, widow(er) and grave are Germanic, i.e. inherited from Old English.
As a friend recently phrased it, before that it had been possible to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head: that the Queen was very old and that she would live forever... The extent of the affection, regard and respect for her shown by the public since her death amounts to that oxymoron, a secular canonisation. Earl Marshal is an interesting compound noun which is in a sense a microcosm of the Norman Conquest, for it unites the Old English/Anglo-Saxon eorl with the Norman French marshal.
Many journalists picked up on a single word in her resignation letter: scurrilous. The reason seems fairly obvious: scurrilous accusation is a great soundbite. That said, I can’t help wondering, cynic that I am, about a couple of other things. Did the hacks relish it because it’s not a word you come across every day? And how many people googled it to find out what it means?