This was just one of those things I never thought about, and never would have thought about if I hadn't made a mistake. I was reading the Bookwitch blog the other night, where the blog author recounts an amusing curtsey story from childhood. You can read all about how Swedish girls were brought up once upon a time HERE.
I was impressed, as one of the many things not really included in a California education is a lesson on how to curtsey to important people. Probably a lack, but never mind. I wrote in the comment field, though, that I had never learned to courtesy. Didn't notice it till this morning when I was reading through some of the other comments. Never learned to courtesy? I had never thought about how close the words were in sound. And in meaning when you started to think about it.
Turns out I wasn't so far from wrong. Curtsey or curtsy is just one of those word drifts. A curtsey, or curtsey, or courtesy, or even courtsey (but Wikipedia says this is wrong, though it does make you wonder where the line is drawn, and by whom) are all just different ways of spelling the little dip which signifies a gesture of courtesy. And courtesy is just having courtly bearing or manners, or so says the Online Etymology Dictionary anyway. The Old French was curteis, because it goes without saying that we got it from France.
Interestingly, the word was not exclusively of a female gesture, but I guess it's not surprising that women remembered to show deference longer. The written appearance of the word curtsy in English was about 1540, but the use of it to signal the classic bowing of the knee not till 1570. It takes awhile to bend the knee, I suppose.
Not if you're a Texas deb, though. When you have to bow in deference, might as well make it big. Wikipedia clued me in to this one. When you go to the Waldorf-Astoria for the International Debutante's Ball, and are formally introduced here's what happens:
The young woman slowly lowers her forehead to the floor by crossing her ankles, then bending her knees and sinking. The escort's hand is held during the dip. When the debutante's head nears the floor, she turns her head sideways, averting the risk of soiling her dress with lipstick.
Now I looked through a few images to find one as an example, but in none of them was the escort holding her hand. The times are changing, even in Texas, where, like elsewhere, women are doing it for themselves.
(The gif of the constantly curtseying woman is a Wikipedia slice from the work of the great Eadweard Muybridge, in case you didn't know. The Texas dip deb is from the White Rock Lake Weekly from a couple of years ago. I'd credit the photographer, but there is no attribution.)