Overheard in the Cathedral

The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic church in Europe. Its graceful ceiling vault soars higher than that of Chartres Cathedral. The church’s bell tower, known as the “Giralda”, was the minaret of an Almohad mosque that occupied the site before the Spanish Reconquest by the Christian Monarchs.

Resting for a moment in the cathedral’s orange tree courtyard last week, I listened as a whispering young man retraced the perimeter of the vanished mosque within the  structure of the present building for a discreetly veiled female companion. Her eyes filled with tears and she let out a long sigh.

On a lighter note, inside the cathedral, I overheard a tour guide remark that a visitor had once informed him that the expression “stinking rich” had its origin in the lingering odor of the rotting corpses of the well-to-do buried beneath the paving stones of holy places. I was amused, but skeptical, and later did a little research. It seems that the same phrase crops up in Flemish as “stinkend rijk” and that in Belgium the same story I heard in Seville Cathedral holds a certain urban legend status. Etymonline.com refutes the burial derivation of stinking rich and the phrases.uk.org word sleuth team qualifies it as a “totally bonkers folk etymological derivation”.

All sources I consulted highlighted the time-honored use of the adjective stinking as an intensifier, citing the ever-popular phrases “stinking drunk” and “We don’t need no stinking badges” as examples.

Several Internet sources situated the first appearance of the term “stinking rich” in a 1956 article in the New Yorker Magazine, in which it was used to describe the Military Industrial Complex. Not so, claims phrases.uk, that traces the earliest known use of it to a November 1925 issue of The Independent, a Montana newspaper, in what was perhaps a description of a wealthy American girl abroad:

He had seen her beside the paddock. “American.” Mrs   Murgatroyd had      said. “From New England – stinking rich”.

Speaking of Americans abroad, combing the Internet for the origins of “stinking rich” I came across an interesting interview with a political science major from Indiana University who spent the spring semester of 2002 “studying” in Seville. “Seville is incredible,” the nineteen-year-old said. “You can totally get by without knowing Spanish in Seville. It’s a really international city and most of the locals speak English.” But perhaps not perfectly, as he went on to say, “Sure, it’s weird taking classes from someone who barely speaks English and you wouldn’t believe what a Jack and Coke costs in Seville. But I’ve had some really unique experiences. I’ll never forget it. There are all these amazing cathedrals and statues and art museums. Hopefully, at some point, I’ll get a chance to see some of it.” According to the interviewer, as of mid-February, the young scholar had not had the time or energy to visit Seville Cathedral or the Fine Arts Museum, but had, however, made three forays into the American Club, a “great bar near campus where they’ve got Dave Matthews on the jukebox and Sam Adams on tap.” The student added that he was looking forward to a true taste of  Sevillian culture during Easter Week. “We’re talking non-stop Cuervo,” he effused, as he pointed out that Semana Santa was the perfect opportunity to – what else ? – get stinking drunk.