I haven’t researched a word in a bit, and with Easter now looming ahead, Maundy Thursday tempted me. I’d never looked at that word before—nor have I ever seen it used except as a decoration of the Thursday before Easter Sunday. This year it will come on April 21. I learned from my trusted source (Online Etymology Dictionary) that the word derives from the Latin phrase Mandatum novum do vobis: “A new command I give you,” found in John 13:34. Jesus said this on the night of the Last Supper after washing the feet of the Apostles. In Middle English maunder meant “the Last Supper.” Thus from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Old French, where it is mandé, to English. Our 1909 Webster, the oldest dictionary we own, adds another meaning, that of alms. Evidently alms were given on this Thursday, known as the maundy, and in England a “royal maundy” is still paid out. This formulation appears to be uniquely English. In Germany this Thursday is simply Osterdonnerstag, in French Jeudi saint.
For me this word is a nice example of how the mind interprets language it doesn’t understand precisely. I’d never looked up maundy because I assumed that it meant “sad,” probably an old meaning that stems from to maunder, to grumble, to wander about listlessly (which we do when we are sad), to speak in a mumbling, disconnected way—also a symptom of sadness. Turns out that that word, to maunder, is derived from the sixteenth century to maund, to beg; and that root from the French mendier, also to beg. It’s sad to be a beggar, of course. And Maudy Thursday is a sad sort of day, leading up to Good Friday as it does. The mind copes. But it’s more enlivening to look things up.