From Mary of Magdala, the female disciple of Jesus Christ cited in the New Testament, we have the names Magdalen and Magdalene. Oxford Dictionaries includes the archaic definitions of magdalen, a reformed prostitute, and a home for reformed prostitutes.

According to Etymonline, the Greek female name Magdalene was anglicized to Maudelen in the early 14th century. In Aramaic, Maghdela meant “elevated, great, magnificent” while in Hebrew מגדל, migdal (or migdol), meant “tower” or “fortress”. From the comments, @John Lawler mentions that in modern Hebrew - migdalor stands for ‘lighthouse’ lit = tower + light.

Two eminent and prestigious English Colleges are named after the catholic saint but their names, although spelled Magdalene and Magdalen, in keeping with tradition are pronounced /ˈmɔːdlᵻn/ mawd-lin

Magdalene College Cambridge

Founded 1428

One of the questions we are asked most commonly is about the pronunciation of the name of the College! Though nowadays spelt in the biblical and continental way, 'Magdalene', the College name is customarily pronounced 'Maudlyn'.

The College at its refoundation by Lord Audley in 1542, was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. The choice of the name of Mary Magdalene appears to have had a touch of vanity. In many early documents, the name is clearly spelt as pronounced: 'Maudleyn', containing within it the name of Audley himself! The final 'e' on Magdalene was an attempt, with the advent of the postal service in the mid nineteenth-century, to distinguish us from our sister College, Magdalen Oxford.

Magdalen College; University of Cambridge

Magdalen College Oxford

Founded 1480

People are regularly surprised at why Magdalen College is pronounced “Maudlin”. This charter offers a reason why. Waynflete decreed that his College should be known as “Collegium beatae Mariae Magdalenae” in Latin and “Maudelayne College” in English. In the 15th century, English speakers called St. Mary Magdalene “St. Mary Maudelayne” (or “Mawdelayne”), without the “g” – like “Madeleine” in French. It was only later that we put the “g” back. Magdalen College, however, like Magdalene College, Cambridge, has preserved the old pronunciation of her name.

Magdalen College; University of Oxford

It's pretty straight forward how the English adjective maudlin, meaning ‘tearful’ and ‘highly sentimental’, was derived from the Anglicized name Maudlene but less straightforward is the whereabouts of the letter "g" that must have been seen and — more importantly — heard in migdol, Magdala and in the Greek Magdalene. In fact, the "g" is included in the following IPA transcriptions: /ˈmaɡdəlɪn/, /ˈmæɡdələn/ and /ˈmæg də lən/. Unbeknown to me, the last ‘e’ in Magdalene is sometimes pronounced /ɪ/ as in mæɡdəˈliːnɪ.

So although the "g" was absent from Maudlene, both Cambridge and Oxford later sought to reinsert the "g" in their college names. Why?

  • Why did Cambridge and Oxford replace Maudelyn and Maudlin with Magdalen(e), and when exactly did this happen?

  • Why didn't the spelling also change for maudlin, when the name Magdalen(e) and the noun magdalen was introduced in England?

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    Magdalene: From a title which meant "of Magdala". Mary Magdalene, a character in the New Testament, was named thus because she was from Magdala - a village on the Sea of Galilee whose name meant "tower" in Hebrew. She was cleaned of evil spirits by Jesus and then remained with him during his ministry, witnessing the crucifixion and the resurrection. She was a popular saint in the Middle Ages, and the name became common then. In England it is traditionally rendered Madeline, while Magdalene or Magdalen is the learned form.
    – user66974
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:53
  • 3
    @Josh I think we are all well aware of the name's origin, Josh. But your final sentence, in bold, is not the case at all. The learned form used in Oxford and Cambridge, both of which have colleges of that name is Maudlin. A teacher at my school (60 years ago), a Latin scholar as well as being an ordained priest, used to insist, when reading from the New Testament to pronounce the name Mary Magdaleney.
    – WS2
    Mar 26, 2017 at 21:04
  • 3
    Our modern English translations of the Bible have gone back to the Latin text for the form Magdalene. But in early French, the g dropped out and the word became Madelaine. When the name was taken into Middle English from the early French texts, its form was Maudeleyn and later Maudlin. In the Middle Ages, religious artists painting scenes of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus showed Mary as weeping. In time her name became an adjective for a tearful show of emotion and later especially for an exaggerated display of emotion. wordcentral.com/cgi-bin/student?maudlin
    – user66974
    Mar 26, 2017 at 21:19
  • 2
    The /gd/ cluster is there in the original (and still is in modern Hebrew - migdalor 'lighthouse' lit = tower + light), and it's not hard at all to see how the first voiced stop of a cluster of two gets dropped. As to reintroduction, that's an ongoing process in a consciously archaizing environment like Oxbridge. Probably it's been reintroduced in many different places, times, and contexts over the centuries. Mar 26, 2017 at 21:30
  • 2
    @Josh have you read the excerpts taken from the University of Cambridge and Oxford? The pronunciation of the colleges called Magdalen(e) is written and placed in bold in both excerpts. It's the reason why I searched into this the first place. I'm not asking "how" to pronounce the colleges' names in Cambridge or in Oxford, but why the missing "g" was reinserted, and (consequently) "why" has the traditional pronunciation stuck for five hundred years.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 27, 2017 at 16:45

3 Answers 3


The "g" never completely left England in the first place. It was one of several spellings.

For example, the first full English translation of the New Testament, from the Latin Vulgate rather than the original Greek, was the unofficial translation by Wycliffe in 1382. In the space of 11 verses (Matthew 27 verse 56 to 28 verse1) Wycliffe spelt the name three different ways: "Magdalene", "Maudelene" and "Mawdelene".

Chaucer also used spellings with and without the g. King Henry VII (reigned 1485 - 1509) wrote to the Oxford college spelling its name with a"g", and Henry VIII used various spellings. Reference

Mary Magdalene was said to have lived in France for many years, and there are many stories and legends about her time there. Some even suggested she may have been "Mrs Jesus". Her cult was especially popular in France, and with the Normans who conquered England. Also the Knights Templar held her in great regard. The first "a" in Magdalene was pronounced in England similar to in France, to rhyme with ball and water. Said this way the "g" sound virtually disappears, and this is the reason for it often being omitted.

The Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene accompanied Jesus on a preaching tour (Luke 8), and may have provided financial support. She was present at the Crucifixion and was the first person known to have met Jesus after the Resurrection (e.g. Matthew 27 and 28, Mark 15 and 16; John 19 and 20). It was she who told the male disciples Christ had risen, though they did not believe her until they saw for themselves.

The Gospels also refer to a Mary at Bethany (John 11), sister to Martha and Lazarus; and to a penitent "sinful woman" whose tears wet Jesus' feet, which she then dried with her hair (Luke 7). The early Church had long speculated that these two women and Mary Magdalene were all one and the same person, and Pope Gregory in the sixth century asserted this was so. This is known as the Composite Magdalene. The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as weeping and sentimental (washing Jesus' feet with tears as well as moping about in the garden after His death) led to her association with weeping sentimentality and to our word "maudlin".

The sixteenth century saw several mass-produced Bibles in English, beginning with Tyndale's illegal translation in 1526. The first official English Bible, the Great Bible of Henry VIII, was produced in 1539, and copies placed in every parish church. The Geneva Bible was produced abroad during Queen Mary's reign (1553 to 1558) , and very widely circulated when Elizabeth succeeded her. Another official version, the Bishops' Bible was produced in 1568, followed by the King James Version of 1611. All these Bibles agreed in spelling Magdalene with a "g". Indeed the original Greek word, which begins mu-alpha-gamma-delta, pretty much mandated this.

As spelling became standardised the standard spelling of Biblical names naturally conformed to the spelling used in Bibles. This applied to Oxford and Cambridge colleges as to everyone else. We will not find a decision by the colleges to officially change the way they spelt their names, with effect from a certain date, because spelling wasn't consistent or official to begin with.

It is possible that the older pronunciation would have lasted longer if her cult had persisted. The Reformation reduced the role of saints generally. They were no longer prayed to. Although the feast days of the male disciples were retained, Mary Magdalene's was cancelled, lingering only as a note in the Church of England calendar, but with no special prayers or readings. The identification of Mary Magdalene with Martha's sister and the tearful penitent was dismissed as papal speculation. The French legends were of no further interest. To Protestant England, "Mary Magdalene" was simply not the woman she used to be. At most, she was one facet of her former persona. As the first witness of the Resurrection she was still a saint, but people largely lost interest in her. Calvin even went so far as to call her foolish and unspiritual, and saw Christ's appearance to her first as a reproof to the men, who deserved to be taught by oxen and asses, never mind women! Had she retained her place in popular devotion she might well have retained her pronunciation, due to constant use. As it was, her name was pronounced, when read, as written.

This paper by Frank Henderson explores the dropping of her feast day in England, and considers he attitudes of the Reformers generally.

Very commonly where a name becomes a word, as maudlin did, the word takes on a separate existence independent of the person. In this particular case Mary Magdalene was no longer definitively identified with the weeping penitent woman anyway, so there was even less reason why the word maudlin should follow the Biblical pronunciation, or spelling, of Magdalene.

As regards the colleges the pronunciation stuck the way many place names stick, because people see no need to change them, especially from two syllables to three or four.


In Middle English, the g is sometimes interpreted as a yogh (through, wight, bright), and therefore gets elided. Compare the Old English word þegn rendered in Modern English as thane.

The re-introduction of the g probably comes from the desire to differentiate the common word from the more academic usage, and that meant harkening back to Latin.

  • Any idea when the letter "g" was reintroduced?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:57
  • 5
    Mmm ... but the /g/ had already been dropped in Old French (Madelaine, Madeleine) before the name entered English, so I think we have to look to sound changes in French rather than OE>ME. Mar 26, 2017 at 20:58
  • @StoneyB Chambers's Etymological Dictionary (1867) says [Maudlin, contra. from Old E. Maudeleyne] books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Mar 30, 2017 at 1:58
  • 1
    @DavePhD In 1867 English philology was in its infancy, and what we call "Old English" was "Anglo-Saxon" or "A.S." "Old E." would have meant what we call "Middle English"--which is when the name entered our tongue from O.F. Mar 30, 2017 at 2:19

Printed in 1573 is The whole workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, and Doct. Barnes, three worthy Martyrs, and principall teachers of this Churche of England, collected and compiled in one Tome togither, beyng before scattered, & now in Print here exhibited to the Church, which says:

First touching the birth and parentage of this blessed Martyre in Christ, hée was borne in the edge of Wales, and brought vp from a childe in the vniuersitie of Oxforde, where hée by long continuance grew, and encreased aswell in the knowledge of tongues, and other liberall artes, as especially in the knowlege of Scriptures, whereunto his mind was singularly addicted: Insomuch that hée liyng in Magdalene hall, read priuelye to certaine studentes, and felowes of Magdalene College, some percell of Diuinitie, instructing them in the knowlege, and trueth of the Scriptures.

Furthermore, in the Early English Text database there are about 100 documents from the 1470-1570 time period that use the spelling "Magdalene" plus 39 for "Magdalen".

For example, there is one from 1480 that refers to "mary Magdalene day"

The oldest references to "Maudlin College" are in the 1700s, for example the article The Account of Colleges and Halls of the University of Cambridge The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer April 1748 which says:

Magdalen, or Maudlin-College, was originally founded by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, in 1519, 11 Henry VII, on the Site of St. Gile's Priory by the Name of Buckingham College: But he being beheaded Thomas Lord Audley, Lord Chancellor of England, obtain'd of K. Henry VII in 1542, a Grant of this College, and a Charter incorporating the Society by the Name of The Master and Fellows of St. Mary Magdalen College, in the fair University of Cambridge.

Concerning Oxford the 1726 Terræ-filius: Or, The Secret History of the University of Oxford refers to "Maudlin College" in a 1 June entry.

  • 2
    Is your answer that "Magdalene" was in current usage at the time that the two colleges were founded? Mar 29, 2017 at 14:58
  • @MikeJRamsey56 basically, yes. The one in Cambridge was originally "Buckingham College", but "Magdalene" was in use when it was renamed by Audley. And "Magdalene" was in use in 1480 when the Oxford college was founded.
    – DavePhD
    Mar 29, 2017 at 15:08

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