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Two words for writers of feature stories

When a writer takes up a subject charged with emotion — the death of a child, an older person’s lingering demise, or, at the other extreme, the marriage of a former president’s daughter — it is easy to let control slip. It is salutary to keep in mind two words that you never want anyone to apply to your work.


The first is mawkish, or relentlessly sentimental in a manner so insipid as to be sickening. The word derives from the Middle English mawke — maggot — and originally meant “maggoty.”

The second, often given as a synonym of the first, is maudlin, or foolishly and tearfully sentimental (often from drink). It is a corruption of Magdalene. The conventional portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages was of a woman weeping copiously,* and the association of emotion with her name, combined with the famed British slurring of pronunciation, gave us the adjective.

The colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, Magdalen at the former and Magdalene at the latter, are named for her, and both are pronounced “maudlin.”

So if you would prefer not to be thought drunkenly weepy, or maggoty, keep the emotional language under control and be wary of your own propensity for excess.

And — yes, you should have seen this coming — you might want to have an editor go over that text, in case you still need to be saved from yourself.


*And in the seventeenth century inspired Richard Crashaw’s hilariously excessive poem, “The Weeper.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 PM | | Comments (5)


Umm... Not an especially British slurring of pronunciation, just an older one: -g- after vowels commonly became a -w- sound in Middle English, giving all of us (on both sides of the pond) words like hawthorn and bough, for earlier hagathorn and bog. It's just that in the case of the Biblical name (like some other words, such as Austin friars) — but not the colleges — we've all gone back to a more learnèd spelling pronunciation.

Nathaniel Hagthorne, anyone?

In fact, Magdalen is prounounced 'maudlin" at one University and the Biblical pronounciation at the other. I can never remember which. I suspect it is one way of pointing out the differences between the two Universities, which are so alike.

Good rule of thumb, the reader is supposed to weep, not the writer. Similarly, the reader is supposed to laugh and pee in his pants, not the writer.

No, John was right: there is a small difference in spelling between the two colleges which, without checking, I can never remember, but none in pronunciation. (Trust me: I'm not a doctor, but I have been to both the universities in question.)

John's also right about the famously slurred British pronunciation: we don't pronouce the -g- in bough at all clearly, and haven't done for centuries. Nor do we pronounce the -g- in plough (though we still write it that way), and even we use a -w- to spell hawthorn. The Oxbridge pronunciation of Magdalen(e) is the regular form you'd expect, were it an English word; for the Biblical name we have replaced the traditional pronunciation with a spelling pronunciation, just as we have respelt the word John was discussing.

@Patricia the Terse:

As an alumnus of Magdalene, and with friends who were at Magdalen, I can authoritatively confirm that both are pronounced 'maudlin'. The difference between the two is whether there is an 'e' at the end or not.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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