Saturday, 12 September 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Soo-per-sil-ee-uhs: Adjective: haughtily contemptuous; displaying arrogant pride, scorn, or indifference.

Now, this particular gem may not perhaps be as neglected as all that, though it is one of those words that we tend to bandy about, aware of what we intend to convey when we employ it – usually from a very safe distance, if you’re anything like us – but without ever knowing how it came about and, therefore, what we’re actually saying when we use it. We can be pretty certain that the super part is indicative of something or other being in a state of aboveness but, when we accuse some fellow of being a decidedly supercilious perisher, what is it, precisely, that we imagine he stands in such loftiness over? What’s this –cilious bit all about when it’s at home warming its chestnuts by the fire? Any Latin scholars out there now will be champing at the bit (that’s a cliché, of course) at this very moment, like a pride of archaic boffins (that’s a stereotype – a completely different customer) and muttering darkly along the lines of, “Tsk! Surely everyone’s heard of the cilium, haven’t they?” Which would be rather supercilious of them but they’d be absolutely bang on the money there (now we’re back to clichés), as that’s exactly where it comes from. The seed from which the cilium root sprang is, in fact, celare, to cover or hide – cell and conceal are near-neighbours, with occult just around the corner by the newsagent’s – while cilium itself is nothing grander than the good old eyelid. Typical of your Romans (stereotype again) to imagine that the role of the eyelid is merely to hide the eye, being fickle villains with guilty consciences, but this is the race that gave us the word inculcate. Innocuous enough, you might think, meaning as it does to instil by forceful or insistent repetition, but the root of it is calx, or heel, and so what they’d come up with here is a term for describing all those situations which required them to do a bit of well-aimed stamping down with the bony part of the foot, usually involving an enemy’s head somewhere along the line, until they’d made their point. Small wonder, then, that such a people wouldn’t have much time left to dedicate to conjuring up imaginative terms for the minor appurtenances, now is it?

All of which means that the supercilium turns out to be the much-underrated eyebrow – see what we mean about the minor appurtenances? Those Romans could happily get through life calling the eyebrow “that bit above the eye-hider” but they simply had to have some way of saying “to trample into abject submission” – which also means that, rather disappointingly, when we do resort to referring to some blighter as a “decidedly supercilious perisher,” what we are actually alleging is that they’ve behaved in a markedly eyebrowish fashion, or that they have expressed themselves with altogether too much eyebrowness. Down our way, that sort of behaviour is likely to elicit the menacing response of, “don’t you use your eyebrow like that on me, my lad!” What we’re attempting to get at through all this is that we have arrived at the notion of expressing contempt via the raising of the eyebrow. To most of us, that amounts to nothing more than a gesture of arrogant condescension likely to make the blood boil, whereas, to the likes of someone like Sir Roger Moore, it’s the methodology on which to base an entire acting career.

Sir Roger, of course, is best known for playing the role of James Bond – whereas the name Roger Moore should really be associated with sentiments like “scurrilous old Tory tax exile” – though he actually rose to fame as Simon Templar in the Sixties television series, The Saint, in which he established the “suave” playboy style that he is known for. Well, he did use it in every role he ever played. Before that even, in the Fifties, he worked as a model, appearing in advertisements for knitwear, which earned him the nickname of “The Big Knit.” He remains the oldest actor to have portrayed Ian Fleming’s most enduring character (being forty six when he started and a staggering fifty eight when he finally hung up his gadgets), portraying Bond in seven films, including Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me. Oh, and The Man With The Wooden Delivery.

 Did you notice how we managed to shoehorn in the word “scurrilous” back there, while we were indulging in that outrageous and insupportable diatribe against one of this country’s most respected entertainment institutions – if we go on at this rate, before you can say, “Nice to see you. To see you nice” we’ll be referring to our own dear Brucie as a fossilized old mangel-wurzel in a tuxedo with a Shredded Wheat strapped to his head, and then a line would most certainly have to be drawn. (Incidentally, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Roger Moore has done a great deal of humanitarian and charity work, for which he was knighted). Anyhow, scurrilous was introduced as a prime example of this week’s theme, which is the number of words that seem to wallow in much the same mire of pejorative as does supercilious, all of which also happen to start with the letter S, as if they somehow all require that sibilant quality to make them hiss like a pantomime crowd at the entrance of the baddie. Not a few of them are quite closely related, as it turns out.
First up then, we’d best turn our attentions to smug, pretty much the stunt double for supercilious, seeing they very often fill the same role but with markedly different characteristics. Unlike Roger Moore, then. You may just get away with calling someone supercilious, on the grounds that they might not quite understand what is actually being implied (which is, that you find their eyebrow work most irritating), but chancing your arm with smug is more than likely to result with you copping an unfortunate one round the lughole. Which is a bit of a shame really, seeing that, while it might mean excessively self-satisfied to our modern ears, back around 1550 time it indicated the state of being trim or smart. This may well be an alteration of the German word for this, smuk, which comes from smücken, to adorn, which originally stood for “to dress.” The sense of smug as in overdue self-satisfaction came in about 1701 (the time of James II, the absolute epitome of smug and who was about to get unceremoniously kicked off the English throne that very September for it) but, in 1580, smug had extended from smart or neat into more your smooth and sleek, and was often applied to attractive girls or women. So, come on lads, what are you waiting for? As soon as we’ve finished here, why not do the decent thing and rush straight home, put your arms around your better half, plant a great big sloppy smacker right on the kisser, and then tell her just how smug she’s looking? You’re sure to reap the rewards for it.
Then there’s smarmy, of course, which means to be obsequiously flattering or unpleasantly suave, even ingratiatingly unctuous, if you will, unctuous being the operative word here, coming from the practice of anointing with sacred oils, or unguents, in deeply spiritual rites, the sense having acquired a sarcastic edge somewhere around 1742 and thus come to mean blandly ingratiating or “affecting an oily charm,” a kind of diluted version of smarminess. When it comes to smarm, many dictionaries list it as of “origin unknown” but there is evidence to suggest that it comes from an old English dialect word, smalm, meaning to smear or bedaub, usually the hair, with pomade, which is how we chaps would make a fashion statement back in the 1800s, when pomade was mostly bear fat or lard – we sure knew what the women (and wasps) would go for back in those days – though it could be made from mashed apples, the French word, pomme, giving it its name. There is a theory that smarm may be an amalgam of smear and balm, though this is unproven. By the time the twentieth century arrived, it had taken on the sense it now has: that the smearing involved was with insincere flattery.
At this point, having looked at supercilious, smug and then smarmy, there’s every chance that an image of Jeremy Hunt has sprung unbidden into your head. He’s the Secretary of State for Health, as we know and, having already rubbished an international screen idol as well as this country’s top all-round entertainer along the way, it’s barely feasible that we’re going to pass up this opportunity of dishing out much the same treatment to a truly outstanding Parliamentary statesmen, now is it? (We’ll come to sarcasm later). His infuriatingly self-satisfied smirk may well make us want to wipe it off that smug face of his via a swift blow with a spade but, in fairness to the fellow, on his best form he’s capable of telling the very drollest anecdotes you’re ever likely to hear, all with his own impeccable and inimitable sense of timing. Only a couple of years ago (absolutely true), he stepped up onto the podium to address the Conservative Party Conference on the state of the Health Service, only to inform us that he had recently had to undergo “a small procedure” of his own (rumour abounded at the time that there was a fear his humanity had turned malignant, though this was scotched emphatically when it was proven that he’d had it all removed when still only a small child). A small posse of nurses and matrons were waiting in attendance to get him settled comfortably into bed and, once they had, the chief amongst them leaned over and asked of him, “Now tell me, Mr Hunt, what is it that you do?” Jeremy paused, teasing his audience, before announcing that, “I froze!” Of course, we all simply roared. Once the laughter and thunderous applause had died down, however, a ripple of uneasiness began to make its way around the hall. For one thing, this was the man in absolute charge of the NHS, one of the biggest employers in the country, and yet not a single member of staff had even the faintest suspicion of who in the name of ruddy health he might be. And, furthermore, it was clear from his punchline that, had they known that he was the man behind all the recent reforms to their service, he was somewhat concerned that their thanks might arrive in the form of a blunt and well-deserved hypodermic.

Obviously, we were being rather sardonic there, seeing it was “characterized by bitter or scornful derision,” not to mention “mockingly cynical” at the same time. It seems that sardonic comes down to us via the Phoenician Sardinians: it may be from the Greek, sairo, to grin, making it grinning in the face of danger; or it may be from an ancient belief that ingesting the sardonion plant (the active ingredient in hemlock) would produce convulsions resembling laughter. Followed by agonising death. But the Sardinians themselves were an especially sardonic bunch of brutes, seeing it was their custom to kill their old people, during which process they were much given to loud bouts of laughter. It has been suggested that, far from our own idea that such would be in the most appallingly bad taste, back then they held to the notion that laughter accompanying the passage from life into death thus led to rebirth and new life, hence it was more an act of piety. However, given that they not only killed their elderly people but also went in for poisoning them with hemlock (the “sardonic herb”) first, then flinging them off a rock and beating them to death, this theory would appear to be somewhat sardonic in itself. Even a tad sarcastic. And yet, in the final analysis, they never had the kind of pension crisis we’re now enduring: something for Iain Duncan-Smith to think about there, we fancy.

Now we’ve even descended to being sarcastic about IDS who, given his unimpeachable record for caring for the sick and disabled, has probably considered a scheme much along those lines already. Sarcasm: mocking, contemptuous language intended to convey scorn or insult, from the Greek, sarkazein, to rend the flesh, sarx being flesh. Which our old friends, the Romans, lost no time appropriating for their own sarcasmus, once they realised they were going to be in much need of such a term, especially at their sporting events. Sarcophagous is from the same root, meaning flesh-eating, not to be confused with sarcophagus, of course, your old-fashioned coffin-type arrangement, which also means flesh-eating, seeing they were big limestone affairs that supposedly speeded the decomposition process along nicely.

Irony, on the other hand, is the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning, though it comes from the Greek, eironeia, dissimulation or assumed ignorance, much used by that best-known of hemlock victims, Socrates, who loved pretending to know less about a subject than the fellow he was debating it with, thus allowing them to ramble on until they tripped themselves up. This is known as Socratic irony and, if you wanted to know what this looks like in action (without having to resort to an executed criminal), the pre-eminent example would be none other than Lieutenant Columbo, as played by Peter Falk. Columbo used his dishevelled appearance and bumbling manner to lull his suspects into a false sense of security before gradually tightening the noose around their necks until he’d got ‘em, which is perhaps the method Socrates should’ve gone in for – got himself an old raincoat and a half-smoked cigar – if he’d wanted to escape the old poisoned chalice routine. The sense of irony as being “a condition opposite to what might be expected” arose around 1640. Just in time for the Civil War, ironically.

Satire, just to complete the set, is a means by which topical issues or perceived evils might be held up to ridicule, though its origin is rather different to the meaning it’s ended up with, seeing it started life as satis, Latin for enough. Also from that same root came sate and satiate, satisfy (literally, to do enough), saturate and, strangely enough, even sad, the sense of which evolved from heavy or ponderous (mentally or physically “full”), through weary or tired of, and finally into unhappy by about 1300. The sense in which we use it today to mean pitiful or pathetic has, surprisingly enough, been on the go since as far back as 1899, having meant “very bad” as early as 1690. So, not at all a modern usage and possibly even bordering on a cliché.
Now, those of you who’ve been paying attention might have noticed the odd mention here and there of clichés and stereotypes which, as we all know, are completely different concepts. A cliché is an expression that has been overused to the point of losing its original resonance to become trite or irritating, especially if it was once considered meaningful. Whereas your stereotype is an oversimplification of characteristics typical of a person or group. Such as, for example, stating that Yorkshire people hate everyone else and also hate each other, though nobody in their right mind would ever say that. Would they? (Little bit of satire there. Nearly) Anyhow, as it turns out, both words were originally synonymous and both come from the French. From their printers, in fact. When novels started to become really big sellers, rather than have to set the type up all over again for reprints, they started to form the page settings into solid blocks, or stereotypes (from the Greek, stereo, solid), cast from a papier-mâché mould (wonderfully known as a “flong”). Cliché comes from clicher, to click, supposedly an onomatopoeic word for the sound that was made when the mould met molten metal. So there we are – never get the two confused. And always be kind to Yorkshire folk – you never know who might be listening …

[All opinions expressed herein remain entirely those of the author]

Roman Caliga: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Denis Healey: By Gahetna [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (], via Wikimedia Commons
Roger Moore: By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bruce Forsythe: SqueakBox at en.wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], from Wikimedia Commons
James II: By John Riley ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beau Brummell: Robert Dighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Hunt: Jdfirth at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Phoenicians: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Iain Duncan-Smith: By Work and Pensions Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Peter Falk as Columbo: By Margie Korshak Associates-publicity agency-Falk was appearing at an awards dinner in Chicago. (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stereotype: Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

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