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Mawkish: A Critical Word with Squeamish Beginnings

Time has been kind to the word mawkish.

In the 1660s, it was defined as “sickly, nauseated”. It was derived from the Middle English word mawke, which meant “maggot”. Mawke came from the Old Norse word mathkr, which also meant “maggot”. Thus, the literal translation of mawkish was “maggoty”. It was used to describe contracting sickness from maggots. The word didn’t call to mind the most pleasing scenarios.

However, English speakers decided to give mawkish a different fate in the 1700s. As early as 1702, records indicate the definition was more figurative. And the trend stuck. (However, if you’re wondering about how to describe something “maggoty” in modern terms, since mawkish’s definition has shifted, fear not. These days, a “maggoty” experience is described using medical terminology — intestinal myiasis.)

The definition still isn’t pleasant, but it’s nowhere near as graphic as it once was. Today, it’s defined as “showing too much emotion in a way that is embarrassing”, as noted in the Dictionary of Contemporary English. It could be swapped for sentimental, but mawkish implies a more pathetic fondness than its synonym.

Lately, it has become the culture reviewer’s word of choice to pan saccharine offerings from select filmmakers. “The Sense of an Ending goes mawkish on screen, utterly betraying Julian Barnes,” reads the headline of Calum Marsh’s movie review in the National Post. He prefers the novella on which this film is based, and he makes his disdain clear from the start. And, in an interview with the International Business Times, BBC Obituary Editor Brendan Cole described the Princess Diana 20th anniversary coverage as “mawkish drivel”.

On a somewhat ironic note, literary critics have used the word to describe writers from the period in which the word still had its original meaning. George William Rusden’s William Shakespeare: His Life, His Works, and His Teaching, is a comprehensive exploration of the legendary writer’s literary contribution. In one chapter, he critiques a pair of professors’ criticisms of Shakespeare. “But under existing conditions, when there is almost universal consent as to the wholesomeness of his teaching, it seems wanton to ask Professor Dowden’s question, or to sympathize with Mr. Sidney Lanier’s mawkish complaint that Shakespeare’s own mind was contaminated…” Mawkish is often a polite yet biting way to show disapproval on paper.

Even though mawkish is still a popular word, some writers still have trouble distinguishing it from similar words like maudlin. In 2014, Jodi L. Milner explored the differences between the two words on her blog, My Literary Quest. While both words involve showing too much emotion in a foolish way, maudlin expands to cover all emotion while mawkish focuses purely on sentimentality.

From sickness to subtle insults, mawkish has had quite the transformation, and history has treated it well. But despite the changes, its unlikable nature has survived for centuries.

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Convivial
Prodigious
Convalesce