January 6, 2006
For a few weeks now, I've wondered aloud why one would refer to doing something "delicately" or "with care" with the word "gingerly." If gingerly is taken from the word "ginger," as in the spice... it's anything but delicate. It's more of a robust, in your face spice as opposed to the more subservient spices like celery seed or parsley. I don't get it. Anyways, I found out today...
This is taken from http://www.worldwidewords.org/ (my new favorite web site).
The Latin word was genitus, which is closely connected to other words associated with birth and reproduction, such as genital, congenital and progenitor. Strictly, genitus meant merely “born” or “begotten” (it’s the past participle of the verb gignere, to beget) but seems to have implied a person who was born into a noble or wealthy family. After about 1000 years or so, this turns into the Old French gensor, meaning delicate or dainty (from gent, noble) and 500 years later still is first recorded in English in much its modern form.
In its early days in English it was associated specifically with dancing or walking. If you did these things gingerly you took small elegant steps. In 1583 a writer referred to such dancers “tripping like goats, that an egg would not break under their feet”. As you might gather from this, the word was then rather negative in tone, suggesting a mincing or effeminate way of moving.
Our modern sense, of moving carefully so as not to injure oneself, cause damage or make a noise, first appears about 1600.