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For years I thought gingerly meant "with spirit or liveliness," I suppose because "spirit and liveliness" define the noun ginger.

But no; gingerly means "cautiously or carefully." How did it take on this meaning?

The Online Etymology Dictionary's entry is woefully unsatisfying:

gingerly (adv) 1510s, "elegantly, daintily," perhaps from Old French gensor, comp. of gent "dainty, delicate," from Latin gentius "(well)-born" (see gentle). Meaning "extremely cautiously" is from c.1600.

  • What makes it unsatisfying? The "perhaps"? The OED says that this is the most plausible origin. It was originally applied to dancing. – Alan Munn Dec 30 '14 at 17:32
  • Yes. The "perhaps" is unsatisfying (it suggests the mystery has not been solved), and gensor --> gingerly seems like a specious leap. Also, that vector is used to explain the meaning of "elegantly, daintily," which is now not used, while the current meaning of "extremely cautiously" is just given an approximate date. – Rusty Tuba Dec 30 '14 at 17:35
  • Do you think etymology is an exact science? – Barmar Dec 30 '14 at 17:36
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    How else might we advance knowledge besides with stubborn persistence and inquiry? – Rusty Tuba Dec 30 '14 at 17:53
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    I don't really see how it's much of a stretch to go from 'daintily' in its earlier uses to the more modern use. At least for me, the 'gingerly' doesn't exactly mean cautious, but must be applied to some physical action. It's quite odd to say "I would approach that problem gingerly" to mean "cautiously". – Alan Munn Dec 30 '14 at 17:55
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The following source shows two possible origins of the term. We might cautiously assume that its current meaning comes from the original meaning of elegantly and daintily, probably with reference to the carefulness that dancing steps require.

The word gingerly is: (from www.wordhistories.com)

  • an adverb meaning in a careful or cautious manner,

  • and an adjective meaning showing great care or caution.

enter image description here

  • Aller à pas menu: To go nicely, tread gingerly, mince it like a maid.

  • (Randle Cotgrave – A Dictionary of the French and English tongues – 1611)

Gingerly:

  • The word, as an adverb, appeared in the early 16th century, and meant elegantly, daintily, chiefly with reference to walking or dancing with small elegant steps. It might have been a technical term in dancing.

  • In this early use, the sense was favourable or neutral, but it later acquired the reproachful implication of mincingly, effeminately.

  • This derogatory implication appears, for example, in this quotation from 1583:

    • Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie [...] tripping like gotes, that an egge would not brek vnder their feet.
  • From the 17th century, gingerly is recorded with application to bodily movements, or manipulation in general, with the senses:

  • with extreme caution, so as to avoid making a noise, hurting oneself, or injuring something touched or trodden upon;

The origin of gingerly is uncertain.

The French etymology

  • The most common explanation is that ginger- in gingerly represents an adoption of Old French gensor (other forms include gentior and gentor), which is the comparative of Old French gent, from Latin.

  • The adjective gent meant gentle, amiable, pretty, beautiful, and gensor was used not only as a comparative, but also in the sense pretty, delicate.

  • The sense of this Old French word agrees closely with that of the earliest uses of gingerly, though the English word was almost entirely confined to one specific application.

  • This explanation seems somehow confirmed by A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611). The author, Randle Cotgrave, defines the adverb gentement (from gent) as follows:

enter image description here

  • Neatly, sprucely, finely, comptly (= neatly, sprucely), prettily, featly (= neatly, adroitly), quaintly, handsomely; also, gently, easily, softly, gingerly.

The Anglo-Saxon etymology

  • In Folk Etymology, a dictionary of verbal corruptions or words perverted in form or meaning, by false derivation or mistaken analogy (1882), A. Smythe Palmer suggests an Anglo-Saxon etymology.

  • According to him, gingerly, in the phrase to walk gingerly, is:

  • related to a “provincial English” adjective ginger, meaning delicate, brittle.

  • is perhaps from an Old English word gingralic, meaning like a gingra.

  • The Old English suffix -lic has become -ly (as in brotherly) in Modern English.

  • The Old English word gingra meant young person, from ging, young, tender.

  • Also from ging, the verb gingen meant make young again.

  • The word ging is found, for example, in An Old English Miscellany, containing a bestiary, Kentish sermons, proverbs of Alfred, religious poems of the 13th century, by Richard Morris(1872):

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  • Richard Morris’s translation is: Then wilt thou become young and new.

  • Gingra is found in the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels, with the sense younger (in Luke, 22:26):

enter image description here

  • In the King James Version, this verse is:

  • But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.

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    The OE etymology is unlikely to be correct. Orthographic OE <g> was either [g] or [j] ('y') in initial position, (which is why OE 'geong' (and other spellings) became ModE 'young'). 'gingra' is the OE form of 'younger' but would have the same <g> sound. And the timing of the appearance of the word in English, combined with the meaning really makes the French etymology more convincing. – Alan Munn Dec 30 '14 at 20:41
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You may examine the details of a very plausible guess in OED 1.

Briefly, the word first occurs in the early 16th century as a description of dancing or walking 'with small, elegant steps'; this suits well enough with a derivation from French gensor, gentchur, gentior, originally the comparative grade of gent, 'well-born', but with a side-meaning of 'pretty, elegant'.

Early in the following century it came to be applied similar movements of any sort, with the sense extended from 'daintily' to 'carefully':

With extreme caution, so as to avoid making a noise, hurting oneself, or injuring something touched or trodden upon; also, with the appearance of reluctance or distaste (as in handling some disagreeable object).

That meaning continues to obtain today, often in a figurative sense, as when we speak of addressing controversial issues gingerly.

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