Lane Greene of The Economist has a “Johnson” column in which he discusses the “three rather strange names … ‘Maundy’ Thursday, ‘Good’ Friday and ‘Easter'”; the last two are pretty straightforward (good used to mean ‘holy, godly’ and Easter is after a dawn goddess Eostre), but the first is more confusing. Greene doesn’t care for the OED’s explanation (“< Anglo-Norman mandet, mandé (c1120), Old French, Middle French mandé (1223) < classical Latin mandātum mandate n., in phrase mandatum novum a new commandment (with reference to John 13:34…)”):
This is strange, though. Part of the reason is that the mandatum verse begins a well-known piece of Holy Thursday liturgy, but after listening to monks chanting it, it is hardly obvious that believers would pick out that first word, deform it to Maundy and so name the holiday. Some dictionaries note that it might have come from the Old French mande [i.e., mandé — LH]…. But all church services were in Latin in medieval Europe; why is it not Mandatum Thursday (or simply Mandate Thursday)? If French-speakers named it, it should be fully French: jeudi de mande. (And why don’t French-speakers on the Continent call it that?) The proposed Franco-English hybrid, Maundy Thursday, is odd in every way.
The other explanation is that the poor got alms from the king on Maundy Thursday (in which the poor are elevated to a special role, in keeping with Jesus’s humbly washing his disciples’ feet.) A maund is an old English word for a woven basket, out of which the king is said to have distributed alms—indeed the British monarch still gives out specially minted coins. Maund is Germanic originally, but may have made a round-trip through French before being adopted into English, which explains the French-looking spelling. Maundy Thursday remains a bit of a mystery, but this second explanation has a more intuitive appeal.
I’m pretty sure the OED is correct, but I’m glad to know about the word maund. (Thanks, Paul!)
Incidentally, I was reading a Guardian article by Natalie Nougayrède, and it struck me that I had no idea what kind of name Nougayrède might be. Anybody know? (I mean, she’s French, so it’s a French name, but you know what I mean.)