Look at this long word, with its six syllables and assorted bits and pieces of letters, a pair of p’s, a pair of r’s, a quartet of a’s, and five other miscellaneous ones, sticking out in various directions. It sounds a bit like a puff of wind blowing through a window and flapping the curtains and causing the papers to flutter. It makes me think of the multitude of little bits and pieces sometimes seen hanging off of and out of the bag of my remarkable wife, such an asteroid belt of small flapping and dragging things that some fellow figure skaters once compared her to Grizabella from Cats.
But paraphernalia refers to more than just random stuff, and the length of the word – and its evident Greek origin – give it a more technical air too: it sounds like a word you would see on a police report.
Probably in the phrase drug paraphernalia, in fact, which is one of the top places you’ll see this word. Also marijuana paraphernalia and cocaine paraphernalia and injection paraphernalia. But also medical, fishing, camera, and quite often ritual. And very often other paraphernalia.
Because it’s too unkind to say junk and too brutishly vague to say stuff and too vulgar to say shit. You could say things, but that’s not a very spread-about-and-scattered word. You could say appurtenances, but that mainly has a sense of “belongings”, as opposed to paraphernalia, which seems to imply assorted things all in orbit around a central function. As Visual Thesaurus puts it, paraphernalia is “equipment consisting of miscellaneous articles needed for a particular operation or sport etc.”
So here’s a question, raised by my colleague Rosemary Tanner: what about if you have just one? Paraphernalia are miscellaneous associated articles; what if you have just one of those associated articles? You have a paraphernalium?
I like that. But actually it’s not quite what you have. The singular is in fact paraphernalis. (Sounds sort of like three women’s names, doesn’t it?) It’s Latin, yes, but it’s borrowed from Greek: παράϕερνα parapherna, from παρα para “along with, beside” and ϕέρειν pherein “carry, bear, bring”. So it’s bring-alongs, yes? And a paraphernalis would just be a thing you happen to have with you?
If you’re a new bride, perhaps. The original use of paraphernalia (and of the now-disused word parapherna), you see – in English as well as elsewhere – was specifically those things a woman brought with her into the marriage other than her dowry. It used to have a legal sense: though the paraphernalia became the husband’s property, the wife was entitled to their use and enjoyment, and on the husband’s death, she would retain them. They did not include furniture. (Remember that Shakespeare had to will his wife a bed.)
That legal situation changed more than a century ago, of course: women have more rights now. The various socks and laces and scarves and pins and so on hanging out of my wife’s massive shoulder bag are her paraphernalia, sure, but they haven’t become my property. (I have enough crap of my own anyway.) And since the word isn’t needed officially for that, it is no longer part of the legal lexical paraphernalia of a marriage contract, and it is free to attach to whatever else.
So it has largely moved from one addictive, mind-altering thing to another: from marriage to drugs. But I will admonish you that if you speak of a paraphernalis, it may be you who are thought to be on drugs. And if you write it, it will be taken for a typo. (Anyway, the thing about paraphernalia is that there’s never just one piece of it.)