April 14

Languagelab: Something Blue

As I count down the weeks – and days – to my own wedding, my thoughts are turning to the finer details. Specifically, how can I incorporate the wedding custom of having “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue into my day? My dress (and most of my outfit) is new; my “something borrowed” is a beautiful garter belonging to a family member and both my “something old” and “something blue” are accounted for by a gorgeous aquamarine ring which belongs to my Aunt. This was originally a gift from my Grandpa to my Nana 50 years ago and, seeing as it’s blue, as well as rather old, it should do the trick.

But as I contemplate each of these in turn, my thoughts turn to the origin of this saying and the meaning behind each part. Where does it come from and what does it mean? And why do we continue to abide by the rules of this custom?

Etymological evidence is scarce, but the tradition of incorporating “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in your shoe” into your wedding is believed to derive from a rhyme in a late-19th-Century compilation of English folklore. The bride’s relatives would present her with gifts on the morning of her wedding in order to bring good luck – although nowadays the bride tends to organise these herself.

As folklore would have it, the wearing of “something old” and “something blue” was important, because it was believed that this would counteract the “evil eye” which could cause the recipient injury or misfortune – or, more worryingly in the case of a new bride, infertility. Respect for ancestry was important to Victorian families, as was the ability to bear children. Hence the wish to respect this through wearing something old. Nowadays, the “something old” still represents respect for your past and the continuation of the family line through marriage.

Likewise, the colour blue has been connected to weddings for hundreds of years; the colour traditionally symbolises purity and fidelity, among other qualities. The Virgin Mary has been depicted as wearing blue in art dating back to the Byzantine era, for example, while in Ancient Rome brides wore the colour to symbolise their modesty. Wearing blue is still a common custom, and it can be found in wedding jewellery, the garter, underwear or even the chosen flowers.

For the superstitious Victorian woman, the risk of being made childless could be also be minimised by wearing “something borrowed”. Traditionally, this item was an undergarment belonging to someone who has already been blessed with children and a happy marriage. This borrowed item represented happiness and the sharing of good luck. This gesture also showed the bride that she can depend on her family and friends for support in the years to come – this sentiment remains true for today’s brides.

Meanwhile, placing a silver sixpence in the bride’s shoe was a custom intended to encourage good fortune and financial security. This was traditionally done by the bride’s father, and symbolised his desire to wish her happiness and security in her future marriage. This belief that such a gift would bring its recipient good luck dates as far back as the Middle Ages, with regional variations in Scotland, Sweden and Latin America.

Finally, the “something new” represents optimism and excitement for the future, and is representative of the new union that is being created. This does not have to be symbolised through a new dress, as many brides chose to wear a gown that belonged to previous generations. It can be a piece of jewellery, undergarments or new shoes, but its meaning is the same.

We use these, and hundreds of other, proverbs every day in the English language – without really thinking about their origins. But on a day as important as my wedding day, it’s perhaps best not to tempt fate; I will be wearing them all anyway – just in case!

Katy Fillingham, 14 April 2014