Archive for the ‘adverb’ Category

One of the most fascinating and entertaining features of the English language is that it is in a constant state of change. As new things are created or discovered, someone, somewhere, comes up with a word to refer to it. For example, a side effect of male obesity is the growth of large, fleshy breasts that have been referred to as man boobs, or moobs. It’s perhaps something of a sign-of-the-times that we need such a word. Nevertheless, now we have ’em, we also have a name for ’em.

Yet there are also many old words that clearly were necessary for some peculiar reason but that we don’t use much now. For word lovers, it’s always fun to bring some of these out of retirement, if only – like mayflies – they can have their moment in the sun before disappearing back into obscurity for decades.

So welcome back to the spotlight the word nudiustertian, which on first inspection seems like it should have something to do with strippers and nakedness. Alas its meaning is much more prosaic – though fascinating in its own right.



According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means;

Of or relating to the day before yesterday

The word literally means “today the third day” and derives from the Latin word nudestarianus, which is turn originates from the phrase nudius tertius – the day before yesterday. Breaking this down even further, the word nudius comes from nu meaning “now,” and dius for “day,” and tertius means “third.”

THE OED goes on to gives its only example of the use of the word in a sentence from 1647, taken from the ever-popular The simple cobler of Aggawam in America, written by Nathaniel Ward.

When I heare a‥Gentledame inquire‥what [is] the nudiustertian fashion of the Court; I mean the very newest.

Sadly, there are no other examples, and this is truly sad because in all honesty, it’s hard to think of a way of slipping this word into a casual sentence! Indeed, a quick Google search for “nudiustertian examples” offers lots of examples of Nathaniel’s sentence, but little else. Even the folks at the usually prolific Wordnik site can only offer one extra sentence, and that’s a comment on the use of nudiustertian by Ward.

What we may have here is a word for which there is a meaning but no functional use! Or put another way, just because there is a word for “related to the day before yesterday” doesn’t mean it’s going to be used. Remember, it’s not a noun but an adjective, so it has to be used in an adjectival way.

In truth, even Ward appears to suggest that the word should not be used in its literally sense but as meaning “the newest” or “most recent.” No wonder it never caught on.

We also have a similar, although temporally opposite, word for “related to the day after tomorrow,” which is overmorrow. Yet as with nudiustertian, having a word for something doesn’t mean we’ll use it. Given the choice between “I’ll see you tomorrow” and “I see you overmorrow,” which do you think you’re likely to use?

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…and we’re back!

After a three-week hiatus caused by the vicissitudes of modern life, a feeling of guilt has washed over me and the only way to towel it off it to write something. A combination of traveling and writing reports for which I get paid (and although I prefer the fun of The Etyman Language Blog, that won’t but me food or fix my motorcycle) has kept me too busy to update my posts. Mea culpa.

I’m not criminally guilty. As far as I am aware, there’s no law that forces me to update my blog, so the arrival of a fully armed SWAT team is not something I need to be worrying about. The sense of guilt I have arises from an internally developed sense of duty to both myself and my seven readers. Well, maybe it’s eight. Whatever the number, I only have myself to blame for the guilt because if I’d been smart enough never to have started this blogging adventure following my 50th birthday, I’d be free to do other things that are less stressful.

According to the OED, guilt is;

A failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin.

In my case, missed posts could be considered delinquent, but hardly criminal, and certainly not sinful – unless there was an 11th commandment written on the third tablet of stone that Moses dropped on his way down. Freud was hot on the notion of guilt as being related to sin, to the point that in his Civilization and its Discontents (1931), he argued that the guilt/sin relationship was a tool that religions use to keep the faithful in check:

The different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization. What is more, they come forward with a claim…to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.

According to Herant Katchadourian in his fascinating book, guilt is the bite of conscience. The good news here is that if I am feeling guilty, then I must have a conscience! Thank God for that – I was beginning to wonder…

Bite of Conscience book

Guilt: The Bite of Conscience

The word as a noun pops up as an Old English word, gylt, in the Blickling Homilies of 1150 in reference to a passage dating even further back to around 971:

Þonne onfoþ hie forgifnesse ealra heora gylta æt urum Drihtne.

However, the verb form, meaning “to commit an offense, trespass, or sin” turns up in The Vespasian Psalter in the sentence “Swoete & reht dryten fore ðissum aee gesette gyltendum in wege.” The base verb is gyltan and seems to have no equivalents in other Germanic languages. It sounds a little like the German geld meaning gold, which is turn is hypothesized to have its origins in the Old Germanic *geld– meaning “to pay,” but it seems a bit of a stretch to tie “paying” with “failing in duty.”

So where might it have come from? Or in case the Grammar Police are checking up on me, from where might it have come?

Looking at instances where Old English has been changed to Latin, we find that gylt is rendered as debitum in The Lord’s Prayer, and gultiȝ turns up as debet in the Gospel of Matthew. So here’s where there’s a case to be made for guilt having the sense of debt – something you owe. And certainly feeling guilty because you have failed to deliver what was owed doesn’t appear too way out.

If we accept this – and you’re always free to disagree – then we can find some similar Germanic family words related to debt. Old English has the word scyld meaning crime, sin, or just plain guilt, which in turn is cognate with Old Norse skuld, Old Saxon sculd, and Old High German scult, all of which also have the sense of debt or bondage.

It turns out to be a fairly promiscuous word in that it seems happy to spread itself about a bit amongst the different parts of speech.  As well as being the noun and verb guilt, and the common adjective guilty, it can easily become the adverb guiltily. You can also talk about someone having guiltiness (noun) and being guiltful (adjective). If you then factor in its opposite forms, by sticking on the suffix –less you can add guiltless, guiltlessly, and guiltlessness to your vocabulary.

And it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to mention how the word is used in the phrase, “guilty pleasure.” Although the OED doesn’t include it, The Corpus of Historical American English has a citation from 1817 in Francis August Cox’s Female Scriptures Biographies: Volume 1:

In our alarm we forget God, think it “strange,” brood with a melancholy, but guilty pleasure, over our sufferings, and act as if we thought that “God had forgotten to be gracious.”

A “guilty pleasure” is an activity or object that someone finds pleasurable but that also induces a sense of guilt because it is in some way “wrong.” There’s also the sense that the guilty pleasure is something shared by others who feel similar guilt. Thus, admitting you like to watch trashy TV reality shows is seen as a guilty pleasure whereas admitting you like abducting children is a criminal activity. The sense of “wrongness” is typically a social phenomenon and not a statutory felonious action. Again, stealing a car may be pleasurable to some, but it doesn’t qualify as a guilty pleasure.

Guilty Pleasure Snooki Jersey Shores

Snooki: Guilty Pleasure... or just plain "Guilty"

Guilty pleasures are relative and can change over time. I used to consider watching Ren and Stimpy cartoons as a guilty pleasure, but now I count is merely as a pleasure – there’s now no guilt involved. And originally, smoking was a pleasure, then a criminal activity, and now a guilty pleasure. Twenty years ago, looking at the 16-year-old glamor models on page 3 of the UK’s Sun newspaper is a guilty pleasure for a Brit, but opening your copy of the Sun when you got off the plane in Newark Liberty airport was a felony offense for being in possession of child pornography!

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If I were given the chance to choose another era into which to have been born, I’m pretty sure that culturally, the mid- to late-19th century would have suited me fine. Well, provided I were given the resources to avoid having to live in grinding poverty, succumb to fatal diseases, and be an Englishman. In truth, it took me a long time to realize that I was perhaps born a century too early, and a simple list of my cultural interests outside of the 20th and 21st centuries make it so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how stupid I was to miss it!

Top Five Musicians: Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.

Top Five Poets: Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson.

Top Five Painters: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Arnold Bocklin, Thomas Cole, John Collier, Casper David Friedrich, and John William Waterhouse.

Top Five Writers: Han Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mark Twain.

Now not all of the above are 19th century – and consider that your “Quiz of the Week” to find out which are more early 2oth – but the majority certainly are. Add to this the fact that my collection of Freudiana takes up three shelves and you can see that on balance, I appear to be a hopeless Romantic, in the full 19th century meaning of the word.

You could say that I am enchanted by the era. It’s no surprise that I’ve already talked about the romanticism of vampires and that both Lara Croft and Xena Warrior Princess are guilty pleasures. But why should that be? What have these fictional characters got to do with the word enchant?

Well, the obvious link is that it also the root of the word enchantress, defined by the OED as a “female who employs magic; a witch, sorceress.” And perhaps the most iconic and well-known enchantress is Circe, who appears as a major character in Homer’s Odyssey, and gets a minor mention in Hesiod’s Theogeny. In the myth, Circe tried to use her magic to enchant Odysseus, but by using a drug given to him by Hermes, he was able to resist her charms. However, the same could not be said for Circe who fell in love with him and eventually let him and his men leave.

J.W. Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (Latin for envious) came close to having me banned from the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide when I committed the heinous crime of trying to take a photograph. My error was to use a camera since that what caught the attention of one of the fine art Gestapo, who were conveniently ignoring all the spotty-faced yakking kids on a school outing happily clicking their cell phones at all and everything. Unless he thought I was an international art thief planning my heist, I have yet to work out what possible harm I could have caused.

Circe Invidiosa painting

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa phto

Circe Criminalis

The word enchant derives from the Latin incantare, which in turn comes from the prefix in- meaning upon or against, followed by cantare, to sing. The word incantation, meaning a magic spell or charm comes from the same root. In his 1377 The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, William Langland wrote;

The frere with his phisik this folke hath enchaunted

By the 16th century, the word had extended its verbiness and become an adjective. In Spenser’s Faire Queene, he said;

When Britomart with sharp avizefull eye
Beheld the lovely face of Artegall
Tempred with sternesse and stout maiestie,
She gan eftsoones 6 it to her mind to call
To be the same which, in her fathers hall
Long since in that enchaunted glasse she saw.

Coleridge was also enchanted by “enchanted” and used the word in Kubla Khan (an etymologized version of which can be found on this very blog).

But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Kiss of the Enchantress

Kiss of the Enchantress 1890 Isabel Gloag

Tennyson used the masculine form of the noun in the story of Merlin and Vivian in Idylls of the King:

And Vivien ever sought to work the charm
Upon the great Enchanter of the Time,
As fancying that her glory would be great
According to his greatness whom she quenched.

In the poem, Merlin is eventually spellbound by Vivian as she casts a charm on him and imprisons him in an oak tree.

Beguiling of Merlin painting

The Beguiling of Merlin 1874 Burne Jones

Enchant has certainly worked hard at crossing the parts-of-speech boarders by moving from verb to adjective to noun and even to adverb! For a very brief period in the 13th century, magic was referred to using the noun, enchantery, and we also see the first appearance of enchantment at around the same time, although this form of the word has continued to also mean “alluring or overpowering charm; enraptured condition; (delusive) appearance of beauty” up until today.

Shakespeare (who else?) appears to have been the first to coin the use of the word as an adverb in the passage;

Yet hee’s gentle, neuer school’d, and yet learned, full of noble deuise, of all sorts enchantingly beloued

And only last month in Vogue magazine, in a review of Oscar de la Renta’s latest collection, writer Indigo Clarke said that there was;

An enchantingly ladylike extravaganza like no other during New York Fashion Week…, Oscar de la Renta’s preternatural ability to make antiquated styles relevant in a modern context is continually inspiring.

Oscar de la Renta gown

Enchantingly elegant de la Renta?

As a final example of the dangers of enchantment, consider once more Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca and his brush with the sirens. These seductresses of the sea were said to lure sailors to their doom by singing the most beautiful and hypnotic songs and causing their prey to crash against rocks and drown. Artist John William Waterhouse, a slave to feminine enchantment, painted Ulysses and the Sirens in 1891, and The Siren around 1900.

Ulysees and the Sirens painting

Ulysses and the Sirens 1891 Waterhouse

If you click on the paintings and look at the faces of all the sirens, you’ll see that Waterhouse was indeed enchanted by a vision of one woman, whose image appears over and over in his paintings.

The Siren painting

The Siren c.1900 Waterhouse

Male artists seem to be prone to enchantment. It could be said of Quentin Tarantino, the director, that he was enchanted by Uma Thurman, who has appeared in a number of his movies and with whom he maintains a professional relationship.

But men and their Muses… that’s another story.

Wordle: enchant - etymology

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Given a choice between investigating a word’s origins and going for a ride on my motorcycle, the weighting is heavily determined by the weather. So while the sun shines down in NE Ohio and the temperatures stick around the 80’s, there’s little mystery as to why there’s been a delay in the weekly posting. This, of course, is the correct decision to make because life is’ after all, about experiences and not writing about experiences. As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his masterpiece, Zorba the Greek;

I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

In the movie – a rare case of where a film actually does justice to a novel – you get to see how the English, bookish, academic character played by Alan Bates learns a valuable lesson from Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, about what it means to be alive. Those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie are in for a treat when you finish reading this and rush out to buy them (or order them online – whichever is your preference.)

Zorba teaches Basil

My motorcycle is a Triumph Bonneville America, perhaps not an unusual choice for an English ex-pat, I suppose. It is, without doubt, one of the most stylish bikes on the planet – although I may be a little biased. I can guarantee that whenever I park up, someone is going to come over and talk to me and tell me how much they like it. I’d like to say it was a “chick magnet” but it’s more of a “geezer magnet,” so the typical discussion revolves around engines, torque, valves, and other items about which I have no clue. To paraphrase Star Trek‘s Leonard McCoy, “I’m a linguist, dammit, not an engineer.”

2003 Triumph Bonneville America

The word triumph is of Greek origin, θρίαμβος, and means a hymn to Dionysus sung in processions to his honor. Dionysos, who was to become Bacchus for the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Well, in the sense that he was in charge of wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, and the Greek stage.


The Romans took the notion of the “hymn of praise” to use the word as follows:

The entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.

The word appears to have slipped into the Latin via Etruscan, according to Liddell and Scott, authors of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, first published in 1819. From there it morphed into Old French triumpher, the Provençal triomfar, Spanish triunfar, Portuguese triumphar, and Italian trionfare. So all in all, quite a popular and useful word.

Triumphant entry: Spring by Alma-Tadema

There’s an early use of the word by King Aelfred in 893, but we can see it in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite (1374) where he says. “With his tryumphe and laurer corovned thus… Let I this noble prince Theseus Towarde Athenes in his wey ryding.” By the 16th century, it had slipped across the border from noun-hood to verbiness;

I tryumphe for a conquest or a victorye gotten… It was a marvaylouse syght to se the Romanynes tryumphe, whan they had the vyctorie of their ennemyes. (Palsgrave (1530), Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse).

At around the same time, specifically in 1529, a priest named Hugh Latimer gave a controversial Christmas sermon on playing cards. Although this was a pastime sanctioned by the church at Christmastime, the Reformers were antagonistic, even though Latimer used the metaphor to teach a spiritual truth based on the triumph or trump card. In fact, he uses the words triumph and trump synonymously. Compare the following:

Heartes is trumpe. {emem} Cast thy tromp vnto them both, and gather them all three together.

And then;

Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes, that they maye haue and obteyne the triumph; you must marke also that the triumphe muste apply to fetche home vnto hym all the other cardes, whatsoeuer sute they bee of.

So the word trump, as used in cards, comes from the word triumph. Incidentally, the Sermon on the Cards may well be the original precursor of the popular Text Ritter country song from 1948, The Deck of Cards. This tells the story of a soldier arrested for playing cards but who talks his way out of the charge by saying that the deck is his bible, with the Ace representing God, the two the Old and New Testaments, the three Holy Trinity, and so on.

Deck of cards

Other noun variations are triumphator or triumpher – one who triumphs; triumphress – a woman who triumphs; triumphalism – the sense of pride after achieving a triumph; and triumphancy – the state of being triumphant. Although these are not likely to be tripping off the tongue on a regular basis, they do illustrate how the word has blossomed since its early days.

As well as sitting happily in the noun and verb camps, triumph‘s promiscuity extends to its sleeping with adjectives and adverbs. The popular triumphant can be traced back to the late 15th century, and it’s less frequently used analog, triumphal even further back to the beginning of that century. Triumphous pops up at around the same time, and by sticking the adjectival -ing on the end, triumphing appears as yet another option in the earlier 16th century, with poet William Dunbar offering “O hye trivmphing peradiss of joy (Poems, 1500-1520). Why, there’s even the existence of triumphable (capable of being triumphed over), but a quick Google search reveals a ghit score of 106, of which most are in sentence pairs where one ends in triumph and the next starts with able (“…triumph. Able…)

In terms of adverbs, you can do things triumphantly, or even triumphally, as evidenced in an article from the Miami Herald in 1984, where we read, “Mike Zeck returns triumphally as… the local kid who actually did break into the business.”

It’s heating up outside. The sun is still shining. My bike is waiting. Write no more.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. D.H. Lawrence

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Earlier this year in March, on Neal Horsley was arrested for “making terroristic threats” against Elton John. The New York Daily News ran the story from The Associated Press using the word terroristic in the headline. Now sometimes you hear a word and think that it is in some sense “wrong,” which leads to you not liking it. That’s the effect terroristic has on me. Why, even the WordPress spell checker tells me it’s wrong. On the other hand, Microsoft Word, on the other hand, has no problem letting it go and so maybe I am being a little harsh in wanting to deny the poor word some form of existence.

"...terroristic threats"

Yet it feels odd. When I hear that someone, “made a terroristic threat,” I want to argue that “made a terror threat” would work just as well. Or even “made a terrorist threat” wouldn’t be a bad thing.

So why does it feel so weird? Why am I having such a hard time accepting it? Is it just too new and I’m too old?

Well, according to the OED, the word makes an appearance back in 1850 in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume XXVIII, p. 407, where we find “This was the Government styled ‘terroristical’ by the Austrians!” Twenty-five years later, in his gripping pot-boiler, Gaii institutionum juris civilis commentarii, Edward Poste wrote, “This terroristic law… was not abrogated till the time of Justinian.”

Notice that the words are used both attributively and predicatively, so the word really seems to be a fair and flexible adjective, able to skip around like any other happy little descriptor. And in 1972, the word appears as a regular “-ly” adverb in an April edition of Economic and Political Weekly, based in Mumbai;

Consisting almost exclusively of guerilla squads, they [sc. the Naxals] moved secretively and acted terroristically.

Adjective to adverb. Well, that pretty much wraps it up for my original notion that it isn’t a word, when in fact it has been around since the mid-19th century and has behaved like a regular adjective.

The uncertainty about the reality of the word may come from frequency – or lack thereof. And when it comes to frequency of a word, there are a number of sources I tap into. On this occasion, I opted for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a splendid online resource for those of us who are not full-time academics with access to specialized (and often expensive) databases. It’s based at Brigham Young University and is one of six created by Professor Mark Davies. Adjectives like monumental and herculean spring to mind when describing the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone into these corpora, which may seem cliched but in this case apposite.

One of the valuable features of the COCA is the ability to be able to search for a word’s frequency by part of speech. My original discomfort with terroristic was because I believed that terror and terrorist could quite happily be used as adjectives preceding threat without the need for a “new” one. So using COCA, I tracked down the relative frequencies of use of the three possible phrases; terror threat, terroristic threat, and terrorist threat.


See how low terroristic scores? Pretty pathetic really. It’s no surprise that it sounds “odd” because statistically it is! Take a look at how it stacks up against terror and terrorist in total i.e. as all parts of speech:

TERROR: 11,999

So although I turned out to be wrong – and I really, really thought terroristic was a newly coined error word – at least I got a lesson on how much the frequency of a word plays in its being accepted as a real word.

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My daughter decided to use her “text a friend” option yesterday while being involved in a heated online linguistic discussion in the XBox world of Halo. She is a freshman at college so naturally this message arrived in the afternoon, when no sane student is actually working.

Halo 3 game

Those of you who have spent any time with an online Halo team will know that the level of verbal interaction tends not to be at a particularly high level. I would hazard a guess that the average Halo language sample is made up mostly of profanities, some of which I’m not sure even I would recognize as such. However, the big, big topic for the day was all about the gradeability of adjectives, specifically as applied to the word stupid.

The question was; which is correct – stupidest or most stupid? A natural sub-question was whether is was better to say stupider or more stupid. It was after a round of arguing that my daughter decided to call in The Word Guy.

Typically, I always love to be right on questions like this, but in practice, some English language “truths” turn out to be more opinion than science, and the rules that are used to determine what is and isn’t “correct” are more complex than hyperdimensional probabilistic quantum equations where you aren’t allowed to use vowels or the number zero.

In general, adjectives (or words that can behave like adjectives) with a single syllable can be graded by adding an -er or an -est to form the comparative and superlative forms. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest are OK, as are thick, thicker, and thickest. Words with three or more syllables stay the same but need more and most to be added to the front. So, we see simple-minded, more simple-minded, and most simple-minded, as well as ludicrous, more ludicrous, and most ludicrous.

However, when you use two-syllable words like stupid and inane, things can get a little wooly, which I accept is not a formal linguistics term but certainly seems to fit the general feeling one gets when faced with choices between adding an ending or using a preceding more/most.

So in true prevaricating style, I texted my daughter back that both stupidest and most stupid are fine.

But that, of course, wasn’t satisfying enough for me, so I decided to try to find a few numbers using the Google search engine. Here are the results expressed in ghits (Google hits):

Stupidest: 1,575,000
Most stupid: 593,000

We can see that stupidest is the winner by far, being used almost three times more often than its most stupid counterpart. If you were to describe this article as “the stupidest analysis of stupid on the planet,” you might be factually wrong but grammatically with the majority.

Moving on to the comparative forms, I found the following ghits:

Stupider: 489,000
More stupid: 662,000

Here, the figures as less conclusive. I’d be OKish to say that more stupid is the more popular, but it would be better to chase down more data to support this. What IS worth noting is that if these figures are reasonably correct, the “correct” gradeable triplet is as follows:

stupid more stupid stupidest

As I said earlier, the “rules” in this case seem to be slipperier (more slippy?) than a bucket of eels that’s been filled with baby oil.See how the comparative and superlative forms are inconsistent with each other? Welcome to the English language, eh?

The word stupid is defined by the OED as;

Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc.

As an adjective, it pops up in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale back in 1611;

Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres?
Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes?
Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man? (Act IV, Scene iv)

The word appears to come from the Latin stupere, which means “to be stunned or benumbed,” and is the same root for the word stupor that can be seen as a noun in 1358 to describe;

A state of insensibility or lethargy; spec. in Path., a disorder characterized by great diminution or entire suspension of sensibility.

John de Trevisa, in his Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum (1398), uses the wonderful phrase;

Stupor is a lettynge and stonyenge of lymmes and crokynge of the vtter partyes of the body for colde so that it semyth that the lymmes shrynke and slepe.

Having one’s “vtter partyes crokynged” sounds more painful than stuporific, but it is at least a good definition of the word.

There is some evidence that stupid was also used to describe a paralyzed part of the body, but this is confined to a usage in 1638 and this connotation clearly never caught on.

Now, at about the same time as Shakespeare was using stupid to describe a state of stupor, its use to describe someone “wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull” (OED, Vol XVI, p.1000) was also growing. It’s this more pejorative use of the word that is typical of today’s use.

During the 19th century, it took on the flavor of meaning of something “Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull,” which could be applied to objects and situations, not just people. When Mary Braddon wrote “We were quartered at a stupid sea-port town” in her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, she wasn’t referring to the mental state of the town but its tedious nature.

It was also used during this period as a noun to refer to someone as being a stupid, as in “You do not know what a thoughtless, heartless stupid I have been. (Mrs. Alexander, Valerie’s Fate, 1885.) This is similar to how someone might refer to a person as a stupid today, or in the now-cliched T-shirt phrase, “I’m with stupid.”

It seems that in the mid-to-late 20th century that the word took on a more insulting slant and became a term of abuse or disparagement. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), we find the sentence, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” Unlike Braddon’s stupid sea-port, the stupid used to refer to the hill is derogatory.

Since the 20th century, the word seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative and calling someone who appears a little sleepy or unfocused as stupid would be unwise.

The word can also function as the noun stupidity, and as the adverb, stupidly, to describe something being done foolishly.

And don’t forget, as Einstein once quipped;

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.

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Many years ago, I spent the princely sum of one pound and fifty pence for a copy of The Lowest Form Of Wit by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter, who died in 1984, was best known in the UK for his comedic roles as the landlord Rigsby in the series Rising Damp, and Reginald Perrin in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. In both of these classics, he was not averse to the use of sarcasm, and his 1981 book was a paen to what has been called “the lowest form of wit.”

The phrase, “the lowest form of wit” is oft used, but its origin is obscure. The Internet, being the Mother of All Lies, ascribes it to Oscar Wilde, who was a master of sarcasm himself and certainly a worthy owner of the phrase. Alas, no Wilde scholar has been able to point to its existence in any of his works. Some folks say that it is actually a corruption of “sarcasm is the lowest form of humor but the highest form of wit,” a phrase that is similarly cited as being from Wilde, yet just as impossible to demonstrate!

And it doesn’t stop there. Michael DeJong, in an article for The Huffington Post, wrote a piece on “Sarcasm Month” and supplied a new misquote where he says, “as Oscar Wilde stated, Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.'” Sorry Michael, it appears he didn’t say that either!

Proverbial origins aside, the actual word sarcasm is of Greek origin, from σαρκάζειν meaning “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” (OED, Vol. XIV, p. 480). This evolved into the Latin sarcasmus, and took on the meaning of “A sharp, bitter, or cutting expression of remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” (Ibid.)

Sarcastic? You bet!

Sarcastic? You bet!

If you use sarcasm, you are being sarcastic, or you may even be described as being a sarcast. The word can also be used in its adverbial form, sarcastically – or even, at a pinch, sarcasmically. This is a rare word indeed and first appears in John Jones’ 1658 tome, Ovid’s Invective or curse against Ibis, where he writes, “It is inhumane sarcasmically to insult over a captive as a Cat over a Mouse.”

Recent research suggests that contrary to its “lowest form of wit” appellation, sarcasm requires some sophisticated mental processing. In an article entitled The Neuroanatomical Basis of Understanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition, psychologists Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Rachel Tomer, and Judith Aharon-Peretz found that understanding sarcasm requires a healthy right frontal lobe. Underlying this is the fact that in order to know sarcasm is taking place, you have to be able to appreciate the point of view of the speaker – a skill that requires the hearer to shift from an egotistical point of view. This is thought to be a skill lacking in folks who exhibit autistic behavior; the inability to appreciate the perspective of other people.

So let me finish with a few examples of sarcasm culled from the wit of various writers – including Oscar Wilde:

“I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. ” Oscar Wilde.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain.

“I did not attend his funeral: but I wrote a nice letter saying that I approved of it. Mark Twain.

“Jane Austen’s books, too, are missing from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” Mark Twain.

“I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you don’t like?” Jean Cocteau.

“The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.” George Bernard Shaw.

“He is a man of great common sense and good taste… meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw.

“The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Robert Frost.

“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Voltaire.

“I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on I go to the library and read a good book.” Groucho Marx.

Food for thought

Food for thought

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