I've heard "gingerly" used to describe walking, running, and maybe a few other verbs that I can't think of right now. Was the term first used to describe walking, and why? The meaning doesn't seem obvious if you haven't heard it before.

  • Your best bet for questions like this is the Oxford English DIctionary. The first edition is available online without charge; it says (here) that in its earliest use (early 16th century) gingerly was chiefly applied to dancing and walking, with the sense "daintily, elegantly". The origin is uncertain, but there is apparently no etymological connection with the spice. Oct 29 '18 at 15:24
  • Thanks, I was hoping for some information on why the term came about but I guess it's a mystery.
    – user322136
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:53

Etymologically, the OED says that we're not sure where the word came from exactly, except it ends in the normal English -ly adverb ending. It lists some theories:

It has been suggested that the first element is < Anglo-Norman gençur and Old French gençor , gentior , etc. (12th cent.), comparative and superlative of gent in the senses 'beautiful, pretty, pleasant', also used as a positive (13th cent.). This is formally and semantically possible, but the French forms are not attested after the end of the 13th cent., so this interpretation would assume several centuries of unrecorded survival in either French or English (perhaps as a technical term in dancing).

The earliest definition listed in the OED is this now-obsolete sense:

Chiefly with reference to walking or dancing: with small elegant steps; elegantly, daintily. Also in later use: mincingly, effeminately.

The earliest quote is:

And I can daunce it gyngerly.
A new iuterlude and a mery of the nature of the .iiii. element , ?1520

Another early quote:

With, Gingirly, go gingerly! her tayle was made of hay; Go she neuer so gingirly, her honesty is gone away.
Goodly Garlande of Laurell, 1523

  • Is there a hint of origin in 'gingirly' ?
    – Nigel J
    Oct 29 '18 at 15:55
  • @NigelJ Yeah but I forgot to add it...until now! We really don't know the etymology for sure.
    – Laurel
    Oct 29 '18 at 16:01

Merriam-Webster marks first use at 1596, with no particular emphasis on walking.

According to "finedictionary", two sources mark its etymology as:

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary Prov. E. ginger, brittle, tender; cf. dial. Sw. gingla, gängla, to go gently, totter, akin to E. gang,

Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary From a Scand. root, seen in Sw. gingla, to totter.


gingerly (adv.) etymology

"extremely cautiously" (of movements, etc.), c. 1600, earlier "elegantly, daintily" (1510s), of unknown origin. Perhaps [OED] from Old French gensor, comparative of gent "dainty, delicate," from Latin gentius "(well)-born" (see gentle). Meaning "extremely cautiously" is from c. 1600.

Your question:

Was the term first used to describe walking?

Walking is a movement so my sense is yes to your question.