tæ-dêr-dê-may-lyên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A ragamuffin, an urchin, a bedraggled person in dirty, raggedy clothes, usually a child.
Notes: This word is a lexical orphan presenting no pronunciation or spelling pitfalls other than in its length. It is a jaunty word that lies in danger of being ignored right out of the language, so consider this a call to rescue it.
In Play: We usually associate raggedness with poverty: "Aurora, my little darling, I would prefer that you play with someone other than the tatterdemalions down at the public playground." The fact of the matter is, however, the tatterdemalion look has become quite fashionable today, though some parents fail to keep up with the styles: "Lucy, don't go out looking like a tatterdemalion; you have jeans without holes in them to wear to school."
Word History: This eccentric word is the tatter in the phrase in tatters. It contains a factitious, rather Frenchy, element suggesting that the word might be an ethnic derivation (it isn't). Tatter is of Scandinavian origin, no doubt brought in by one of the Viking invasions of northern England from the 9th to 11th centuries. It is very similar to Old Norse taturr which shows up later in Icelandic töturr ([ouml;] = [e] with your lips puckered) "tatters, rags". A similar form has been reported in Norwegian dialects as totra. Theories about the origin of the remainder of the word, -demalion, are themselves in tatters.
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