On Saturday night we were out for a family dinner — we’re finally allowed to go out here, now, after months of lockdown and restrictions— and one of the young kids at the gathering commented to me that they liked the pretty balls on the light fittings, and then asked me if that’s what they were called.
I explained that they are called baubles, and added that the beads on her bracelet could also be called baubles because they are pretty things designed for decoration. They’re both different kinds of ornaments, and it’s cool how there are often multiple useful words to use for things.
This got me wondering about the origin of the word ‘bauble’. I suspected it was French, simply because of how it sounded, but such assumptions are not safe. As always, my trusty Macquarie dictionary and Etymonline had my back.
‘Bauble’ came into English in the early 14th century, meaning a decorative trinket or ornament. It came from the Old French word ‘baubel’ meaning a child’s toy or trinket. That may have come from the Latin word ‘bellus’ meaning “pretty” which gave us belle, as in ‘belle of the ball’, or it could be related to ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. The sense of bauble meaning something of little or no value is later, dating from the early 1600s.
Long ago, ‘bauble’ was also the name given to a staff with a decorated or carved head, carried by a court jester and designed to mock the sceptre carried by a monarch. This meaning has fallen out of use, much as the position of court jester and the practice of a monarch carrying a sceptre have done.
So, now ‘bauble’ only relates to the pretty things. It is important to understand, though, that just because something can be called a bauble does not automatically mean that it has no value. It’s fair to say that while some baubles, such as Christmas decorations and the beads in a child’s bracelet, might usually be fairly inexpensive, there are other kind of baubles that tend to be more valuable.
Thus, the two meanings of bauble remain distinct, even though they can both apply at the same time.