Have you ever heard the word meretricious before? It’s not a completely obsolete word, but try using it in a game of Scrabble and see how many people call for a dictionary! Meretricious is definitely not a word you run across every day.
One possible root of the word meretricious, meretricius, is a Latin word meaning prostitute. Another possible origin is mereo, meaning to earn something. Either way, meretricious first entered the English language in the 1600’s as a word to describe a “lady of the night.”
From that meaning it is easy to see how the meaning of meretricious changed into something that is flashy, tasteless, or cheap—all qualities that we associate with prostitutes. Their clothes are cheap, their makeup is overdone, and they constantly advertise their wares in a tasteless way. Thus anything that gave an appearance of being expensive or high class but was actually of poor quality was called meretricious. This is the primary meaning of meretricious today.
It’s a word Jane Austen should definitely have used while she was writing Pride and Prejudice. She could easily have used it to make a play on words with our favorite bad girl, Lydia Bennet. Remember this quote?
“To be sure, it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world in some distant farm house.”
To come upon the town was a figure of speech in Austen’s day, and it meant to make a living in the oldest profession in the world. Austen could have just as easily written, “Had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town, or ended up in some other meretricious setting.”
Austen could also have used “meretricious” many times in her juvenile novel Lady Susan. Come to think of it, Lady Susan was pretty much the epitome of meretricious!
A secondary meaning of meretricious comes from the legal field, where it means an unlawful sexual connection. Again, it’s not hard to see how this goes back to the root word for prostitute.
In researching this word I came upon an interesting web site, www.meretriciousman.com, which describes itself as a blog “for the secretly mediocre.” Isn’t it ironic that it takes an unusually educated person today to know the meaning of the word?
What do you think? Are there any other places in Austen novels where she might have used this word?