• ordeal •
Pronunciation: or-dee-(ê)l • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A terrible experience that is a test of one's endurance.
Notes: Historically, ordeals by fire or water were trials to see if God would interfere (= innocent) or not (= guilty). In Medieval times dunking in a well was the preferred ordeal for trying witches—if she drowned, she was guilty, if not, she wasn't. Ordeals by iron were carried out in torture chambers. This word is a lexical orphan.
In Play: Anything resembling a difficult trial in any sense is usually considered an ordeal: "Jose didn't fire Benedict to avoid the ordeal of the appeal process for both of them." However, it must have been a relief to all concerned when medieval ordeals were replaced by trials with evidence and witnesses.
Word History: Today's Good Word was passed down to English from the Proto-Germanic noun uzdailijan "to share out, deal out" (by the gods). This word also underlies Dutch oordeel and German Urteil "judgement". It is composed of uz- "out" + PIE dail- "to divide" + an infinitive suffix. The prefix uz- went on to become iz- "(out) of, from" in Russian, aus "out" in German, out in English. It came from PIE ud "out". Dail- is a Germanic extension of PIE da- "to divide". It produced English deal and dole, German Teil "part", and Icelandic deila "share". (Thanks now is due Joakim Larsson for perceiving the intrigue in today's Good Word and sharing it with us.)