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Originally, in French, the word embarras meant a blockage or impediment to whatever you wanted to do.
The word found its way into English just after Shakespeare’s lifetime about 400 years ago.
Knowing that embarras meant a blockage, we can easily break the word in two; em bar. To bar something is to block it.
This word bar arrived in English much earlier, back in the 12th century. It somehow snuck into Latin during the time after Classical times when the Romans were speaking Latin but was already part of the Latin leftover language that then grew into French.
No one knows were it originated before it was picked up by those vulgar Latin speaking pre-Frenchmen.
This sense of “blockage” is further supported by the diaries of early European explorers in North America. They used the rivers for travel and they called the large piles of driftwood that sometimes blocked their way embarras.
So how exactly does a word that means “blockage” come to have a sense of “shame” associated with it?
When embarrass first came into English it was applied to financial situations. People were said to be embarrassed if they didn’t have enough money.
Not having sufficient funds blocked them or barred them from doing the things that needed to be done.
From there it’s easy to see how being embarrassed came to mean being put in an uncomfortable position and to be ashamed. It’s common for people with less economic means to feel awkward when someone else is conspicuously flashing cash around.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.