And sometimes words are just soooo interesting!

I’ve just been reading Khoi Vinh’s marvellous blog, Subtraction. In his post on “Ways I’m a Dork: Travel Edition” he describes the Grid-It Organizer from Cocoon. The Grid-It holds “all the paraphernalia — cables, remotes, pens, dongles, adapters, etc.” that most of us now need to pack for work trips (and probably holidays too).

The word paraphernalia caught my eye – it’s a great word, I think, and in Khoi Vinh’s post such a delicious contrast with the short, concrete words (cables, remotes, pens etc.) that followed it. I used to know but had forgotten its etymology, so I looked it up.

Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:


First Known Use: 1651
1: the separate real or personal property of a married woman that she can dispose of by will and sometimes according to common law during her life
2: personal belongings
3 a: articles of equipment : furnishings
b: accessory items : appurtenances
Medieval Latin, ultimately from Greek parapherna bride’s property beyond her dowry, from para– + phernē dowry, from pherein to bear
First Known Use: 1651

And here’s the one from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1650s, “a woman’s property besides her dowry,” from M.L. paraphernalia (short for paraphernalia bona “paraphernal goods”), neut. pl. of paraphernalis (adj.), from L.L. parapherna “a woman’s property besides her dowry,” from Gk. parapherna, neut. pl., from para– “beside” + pherne “dowry,” related to pherein “to carry” (see infer). Meaning “equipment, apparatus” is first attested 1791, from notion of odds and ends.

Fascinating, and thought-provoking.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

Join the conversation


  1. “A woman’s property besides her dowry,” eh? Am I the only one who wonders what it is about English that we actually needed an exact term for this? What’s next “a man’s property besides the TV remote, his football club t-shirts and his collection of spoons”?

    1. You mean you’re allowed control over – ownership of, even – the remote???

      I think that’s what makes “parapnernalia” so fascinating – the fact that who owned what in a marriage was so strictly regulated by law and contract (not just in the UK). Especially as regards immovable property.

    1. Well, it certainly sounds far richer – a word to relish in the saying. Stuff’s got quite a pedigree too – but it suffers from overuse, don’t you think? (As for the spelling, I copied and pasted it as I’d sure I’d get it wrong!)

Leave a comment

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.