Narrative and Memory: Clip Earrings, Cameos, and Compound Words

When I look at my dresser top every morning as I’m accessorizing (one of the best parts of the day), I see more than just an array of earrings and necklaces, bracelets and rings. I see several entwined narratives there as well, the way one of my Grandma Ruth’s cameos (cameos are arguably my favorite type of jewelry)10306183_10152886855238849_1985768928861180634_n (2) works with a pair of earrings that I found at a thrift store, the way a bracelet from the 80s (given to me by a friend I’ve lost touch with) has become a part of my almost daily bracelet picks along with the vintage Danish plastic that I picked up at a neighborhood antique store.

When I’m choosing accessories in the morning, what’s at the forefront of my mind is color and shape and the patterns of what I’m wearing that I might echo in a piece of jewelry. That doesn’t mean, however, that those other thoughts of where something came from or how long I’ve had it aren’t present.

I have quite a bit of my grandmother’s costume jewelry, and I make sure to keep it on its own tray on my “accessory station.” Much of this has become a part of my more regular choices, but there are also dozens of pairs of clip earrings that, while stunning, I just don’t wear very often. IMG_0012

According to this blog on collecting vintage jewelry, the clip back for earrings was patented in 1934 and was popular into the fifties and sixties as well (which was when at least some of my grandmother’s earrings are from). Clips were just one of the options for non-pierced ears, and much as I like the look of these earrings, the clips can be a bit uncomfortable if you’re not used to them. However, I like having them for what they tell me both of my grandmother’s story and the story of earrings in general—and I wish I knew more about them for both of those reasons.

When someone tells me that they like my outfit, I always find myself wanting to tell them everything I know about it—where it came from, why I like it, what it makes me think of, specific memories, etc. This is probably more than most people want to know! But I can’t seem to separate an accessory/article of clothing from its larger story, and it’s much the same with words and their context.

I’ve always loved etymology, the study of a word’s meaning and origin. I like learning how words came to mean what they do and when, as well as the often frequent changes that happened along the way. While I find learning these things interesting with all words, I find compound words particularly fascinating because there are multiple etymological narratives involved.

But first of all, what is a compound word? According to Oxford Dictionaries, it’s “a word made up of two or more existing words.” And what’s extra fascinating for me about these is that we are continually making new ones because new words are always needed to describe new things. “Email” is a recent (ish) example of a compound, derived, of course, from “electronic mail” and now spelled commonly as one word—though I do remember well when it was “e-mail,” with the hyphen. Whether a compound is written as one word, two words, or hyphenated will often change over time with increased use and familiarity.

To look at a common word that is a part of many compounds, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (one of my very favorite books) tells us that “cup” is an Old English borrowing from Late Latin. At the end of the entry, which details how the word moved from Late Latin into many languages other than English, several compounds with their dates of first noted use are given: “cupbearer” has been in use prior to 1425, “cupboard” in 1375, and, my personal favorite, “cupcake” has been a recognized compound since 1828, originating in American English.

Writing this post today is a great reason to keep my Chamber’s with me on my love seat (another compound!) and spend some time in its pages this afternoon. I’ve already tried to look up “love seat,” and even though it I couldn’t find it there, the Encyclopedia Brittanica tells me that the earliest makers of the chair (late seventeenth century) were more concerned with making room for women’s voluminous gowns than they were with amatory practices. Fascinating!

In addition to basking in reference works this afternoon, I may also gaze at my accessoriesIMG_0011 and wonder which of my grandmother’s scarves she wore with which earrings and if she loved her cameos as much as I do—who knows, maybe I’m making some of the same style choices. And if I look at my accessory station as a dictionary, then I can’t help but get excited about how many new sentences I can continue to make!


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