What do you picture when you hear the word tawdry? You probably think of something cheap or gaudy: maybe some loud shirt that people wore to discos in the ’70s; maybe a woman’s bright yellow silk necktie with purple and green stripes; or an Anglo-Saxon abbess with a throat tumor. If you knew about the last one, pat yourself on the back.
In modern English, tawdry is an adjective for gaudy items which are cheap in appearance or quality. This usage has been around since the late seventeenth century. In the early seventeenth century, tawdry was used as a noun for a woman’s silk necktie. The noun is a shortened form of tawdry lace, a term from the mid-sixteenth century, which is an altered form of Saint Audrey’s lace.
Saint Audrey (circa 636-679)—also known as Æthelthryth, Etheldreda, or Awdrey—was an East Anglian princess who became a Northumbrian queen and later founded a double monastery in 673 at Ely in present-day Cambridgeshire. She served as the Abbess of Ely until her death. Her personal life was colorful and complicated. She convinced her first husband, Tondberct of the South Gyrwe, to honor her vow of perpetual virginity. Her second husband, Ecgfrith of Northumbria, initially agreed to honor her vow but later changed his mind. Audrey refused his advances and fled from York to Ely. Legend says that a miraculous, rising tide aided her escape. Audrey died of a tumor on her neck. Tradition says that she considered the tumor divine retribution for her youthful fondness for necklaces. Saint Audrey’s Fair was held in Ely on her feast day, June 23, throughout the Middle Ages. Neckties and ribbons of shoddy quality were sold at the fair.