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Etymological Paraphernalia

A friend of mine recently questioned the spelling of the word “paraphernalia,” suggesting that *”paraphrenalia” seemed like the more logical spelling. While a “phren-” root meaning “mind” might seem attractive due to words such as “phrenology” and “schizophrenia,” that’s not the true origin. There’s actually an interesting story for why it’s “pher” instead of “phre” in the middle.

“Paraphernalia” originally referred to the belongings of a bride other than her dowry, so it’s derived from “para-” (meaning “beside” or “other than,” in this context) and “pherne” (φερνή), Greek for “dowry.” The Greek for “dowry” derives from the Greek verb “pherein” (φέρειν) meaning “to carry,” which is a cognate of the Latin verb “ferre,” meaning “to carry” or “to bear.” That Latin verb gave us such wide-ranging English words as “transfer,” “conference,” “aquifer,” and “coniferous.” The “pher” in the middle of “paraphernalia” is therefore a cousin of the “fer” in those other English words.

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