Sukey Tawdry: An Etymology

Sukey is a pet name for Susan, ‘lily’ in Hebrew. I first heard of it as a child, through a popular nursery rhyme from the Mother Goose collection. It seems Sukey lived in 1797, and had two brothers and two sisters. When the girls wanted to play without their brothers, Polly would pretend to set the table for a tea party. No sooner did the boys see that their sisters  were about to play house, than they’d run for their dear lives. Then Sukey would remove the toy tea set and the girls would be able to play at ease, which means at anything but soldiers. If you’d like to listen to the song, click the site below. (Warning: In all cartoons of this nursery rhyme, Polly and, especially, Sukey couldn’t be uglier. It’s just because Sukey looks good in Japanese togs that I chose this version above all others. But why Japanese? It’s Sukey, not Saki.)

The origin of Sukey’s surname is a bit more complicated, and we have to go all the way back to the seventh century.

Saint Etheldreda (*Exning, Suffolk, c. AD 636; †Ely, Cambridgeshire, AD 679), a.k.a. Æthelthryth, Ethelthrith, Etheldred and Audrey,  was an English princess, daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia, of the family of the Uffingas, descendants of the Norse God, Odin, by his wife Saewara.

In AD 655, after three years of marriage to Tondbert, ruler of South Gyrwe, an East Anglian subkingdom marked by strips of fen, she became a widow, and retired to a remote district in the south, known then as Elge and now as the Isle of Ely (pronounced [i:li], a reference to the eels caught for food in the River Great Ouse), that her late husband had given her as part of the marriage settlement.

In AD 660, after five years devoted to religious meditation at her personal estate in Ely, she was forced to marry fourteen-year-old Prince Egfrith, son of Oswy, King of Northumbria, for reasons of state. Her first marriage was never consummated since she had vowed to remain a virgin with Tondbert’s consent, but her second husband, ten years her junior, was not as amenable as her first one. As soon as he succeeded his father as King of Northumbria in AD 670 at the age of twenty-four, he made advances on Etheldreda that she persistently refused. Tired of being rejected, Egfrith resorted to bribing (Saint) Wilfrid, bishop of York, Etheldreda’s friend and adviser, to release his wife from her vow of chastity. The bishop refused and helped his protégée escape to the monastery of Coldingham, in Berwickshire, on Scotland’s southeast coastline, where she took the veil as a nun.

Egfrith found life intolerable without Etheldreda, and determined to bring her back to his kingdom. When Egfrith’s aunt, Saint Aebbe the Elder, abbess of Coldingham, found out what her nephew had in mind, she advised Etheldreda to leave the abbey in the guise of a beggar. Attended by two nuns, Saints Saewara and Sewenna, she fled to her lands in Ely, where she finally settled and founded an abbey in AD 673.

From then on she led an ascetic life until her death at forty-three on 23 June 679, presumably during an epidemic of bubonic plague. Etheldreda accepted the unsightly tumour on her neck as God’s punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces when she was young. For this reason, Saint Etheldreda is the English patron saint of sufferers of throat complaints.

A festival known as Saint Audrey’s Fair was held in Ely on her feast day—the anniversary of her death—throughout the Middle Ages. Among the wares sold were some exceptionally tacky neckerchiefs (squares of cloth that are folded and worn around the neck), from where the word tawdry, a corruption of Saint Audrey, came to mean ‘cheap and gaudy in appearance and quality and/or lacking good taste.’

If you want to know more about Saint Etheldreda, you may start by visiting the following sites:


10.07.07. Advanced, Etymology, Vocabulary.

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