All About “Dainty”

Over the past thousand years, the adjective dainty has been more of a multitasker than a shapeshifter. And, unlike a number of other words dating from the Middle Ages, its connotation has remained generally positive. (A somewhat pejorative exception cropped up in the late sixteenth century: delicate in health or constitution, a definition that quickly died.)

Today we tend to use dainty as a synonym for delicate – a dainty lace scarf, a dainty tea set, a dainty child. To some extent this use harkens back to one of the meanings the word bore in the fifteenth-century: of delicate or tender beauty or grace; delicately pretty. A century earlier three other meanings not only dominated but hung in there until the 1700s.

Definitions From Times Past  

  • Fine, valuable, handsome; choice, excellent. Quotation from the OED: “Full many a dainty horse had he in stable” – the modernized spelling of a line from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue (1386)
  • Pleasing to the palate. OED quote: “And, if it happen as I did forecast / The daintiest dishes shall be serv’d up last.” From John Milton, in the poem At a Vacation Exercise at the College (1627).
  •  Rare or scarce; precious. OED quote: The black whorts [whortleberries] are very common… but the red are dainty, and found but in few places.”  From fhe botanist Henry Lyte, in his 1578 English translation of The Guidebook of Rembert Dodoens.

Some of these meanings – in particular, those which present dainty as synonymous with choice and tasty – are still found in the dictionary. But how often do we hear anyone describe a n expensive Oriental lamp or vase or a particularly toothsome morsel as “dainty”? In my experience, never.

Dainty Behavior  

Dainty was also applied to personality traits. Your Aunt Gertrude would have been called dainty if she had a sensibility that leaned toward the tasteful and delicate. Your fastidious Uncle Clarence – the one who was  wary of anything with even a hint of the unscrupulousness – was dainty as well. In reality, both relatives would have to be frozen in amber, since these meanings of the word fell from use around the time Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac.

*For more Shapeshifter words, click here and here and here.

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