Tim Bowen tackles a thorny term with this slightly sordid Word of the week.
The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners gives two definitions for tawdry. The first is ‘cheap and of bad quality’ and the second, ‘unpleasant or immoral’, as in ‘a tawdry affair’.
In its first meaning, the word can be found in expressions like ‘cheap and tawdry goods’ and ‘tawdry materials'. An example of the second meaning is “… the seizure of the naval personnel was a tawdry episode for the two countries”.
Tawdry is a contraction of Saint Audrey and comes from the phrase ‘St Audrey’s lace’, which was cheap, poor quality lace bought at fairs in the Middle Ages. Originally the fairs were specifically held on October 17th, St Audrey’s Day, but, in time, tawdry was applied to any cheap material on sale at fairs. It was probably then quite a short step from applying the word to cheap material to applying it to cheap behaviour.