In History, Words

Crying doll with handkerchief

We keep hearing worrying predictions about the death of the high street. I’m very fond of high streets, so on Black Friday I decided to do my bit, bunk off writing Word of the Week and go to a high street to do some shopping.

I had two things on my list: a telly and a set of ladies’ handkerchiefs for my mum’s birthday (whenever I go shopping I like to balance the two ends of the technological spectrum). Despite my best intentions, I’m sad to say I was unable to contribute to the salvation of the high street. The telly shop was in a shed on the outskirts of town and ladies’ handkerchiefs, I discovered, no longer exist on the high street.

In the early days of Google, a new game evolved called Googlewhacking, which involved searching for things that Google couldn’t find in the whole of Cyberspace. As pointless games go, it ranked somewhere between Pointless and Kerplunk but it was, at least, new. In searching for ‘Ladies handkerchiefs’, I discovered there is a high street equivalent. Highstreetwhacking. Ask for handkerchiefs and they’ll direct you to the Menswear department. Explain that you want them for a lady and they look at you as if you just asked where they keep the men’s bras.

“Ladies? Handkerchiefs? Why would a lady want a handkerchief?”

I dunno, blowing their noses? Licking and wiping the snot off kids’ faces? Performing flirtatious acts of courtship? I wasn’t going to go back to my mum and ask her what exactly she wanted them for, so I left it. But all the way home I couldn’t get the word handkerchief out of my head, and the more I said it, the more peculiar a word it became.

But not as peculiar as Kyrgyzstan. I mention this because shortly after my thwarted handkerchief mission I came down with the lurgy. I know – ironic. When I texted a friend to tell him the bad news, my phone autocorrected lurgy to Kyrgyzstan. Try it for yourself. It’s breathtaking, especially since between 1919 and 1991 there was no Kyrgyzstan. Today it’s a country of six million people with a fondness for wrestling. It has nothing to do with man flu.

Funnily enough, though, when I typed in Turkmenistan it autocorrected it to handkerchief. Try that one too if you like. You’ll find I made it up. But it brings me back to the peculiar origins of the word. The ‘hand’ bit is self-explanatory, but the ‘kerchief’? What’s that about? Is it onomatopoeic for a sneeze? “Ha-ha-ha-kerCHIEF!” Bless you. Or is it a portmanteau of Kerplunk and mischief?

“Fancy a game of Kerchief?”

“No thanks.”

It turns out a kerchief was originally a square cloth covering for the head: ‘ker’ shortened from the French ‘couvre’, ‘chief’ meaning head. From the 14th century, people started carrying similar cloths – hand kerchiefs – for manual cleaning jobs and, on hot days, tying knots in the corners and putting on their heads. By the 18th century, ladies of nobility had taken to dropping them as an act of flirtation.

What they’re supposed to drop these days, I can’t imagine. There’s no place for that sort of thing on the high street.

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