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Essay Fourteen, Oh the People You'll Meet. . .
As we turn to adjectives that can improve your communication, we are entering into the world of detail. Adjectives qualify nouns, giving them visual clarity and precision. Thus, as qualifiers, they reduce the universe of people or situations which a noun describes to a more discrete subset of these people or situations. The more precise the adjective, the more vivid the picture that results.
The next three chapters will be devoted to adjectives that describe people. Since we meet people all the time, and spend a good deal of our time trying to describe people to others (usually out of the earshot of the first person), we need to arm ourselves with an array of precise words to capture people we are describing. Yet this isn’t easy to do. There really is no substitute for taking lots of time to sort through adjectives. That is what I will help you do in these chapters.
We often hear people say, “I’m a ‘big picture’ person” or “Give me a bird’s eye summary of the situation.” The more I think about this type of approach to life, the more I think it is not a compelling or even attractive. In its apparent comprehensiveness, the statement often masks a discomfort with or inability to deal with details. Increasingly I am a “small picture” person, and small picture people want to know the details of things. “Small picture” people want to know all the adjectives and the fine shades of meaning among them, to be able to draw upon them at the right times.
Again, we often hear people say, “The devil is in the details.” I have a different approach to life: the angels are in the details. It is by unremitting and patient attention to all the small things of a situation that you become free to understand not just those details but also the “big pictures” of life.
We need to be “small picture” people, who believe that the “angels are in the details,” truly to appreciate the world of adjective. One of the first things we notice, as we turn to the exciting world of adjectives or qualifiers of nouns, is the overlap between and among words. (1) For example, there is a considerable sharing between dour and sullen or among rigorous, severe, and strict. Yet each one has its own story to tell; by knowing these stories, we remember the words and can use them effectively.
(1) We need more words in English to express the concept of an "overlap."
When we enter into the world of adjectives, we immediately recognize the poverty of our speech and writing. Not only do we need to learn how to use these adjectives, but we also need the imaginative capacity to use these newly described words in simile constructions. For example, we can learn that vivacious has something do with being animated or sprightly, but it would also be attractive to develop many similes with vivacious. . . as vivacious as a springing grasshopper, as a sunburst, as a Naples carnival, etc. Thus, our foray into adjectives not only helps us lend precision and vividness to what we say/write, it opens the possibility of imaginative and even humorous writing.
I will look at about a dozen adjectives here that describe characteristics of people: truculent, severe, vivacious, urbane, pensive, sullen, saturnine, phlegmatic, choleric, melancholy, dour, and buoyant.
The Hard Person
Not everyone you meet is warm and effusive. Many are shy, fierce, restrained, even tortured in appearance. A truculent person is “characterized by or exhibiting ferocity or cruelty; fierce, cruel, savage, barbarous.” That, at least, was its original meaning going back to the sixteenth century. But it has kept its association with something savage, brutish, harsh or violent. One dictionary has this:
“Truculent, though it implies fierceness, especially of aspect, suggests the intent to inspire terror or to threaten rather than the achievement of that intention. Consequently it often implies a bullying attitude or pose.” (2)
(2) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 336.
One might say, perhaps torturing the tongue to severely: “under the guise of the crusading spirit resided a truculent ruffianism.” Or, to bring it into the twenty-first century: “He used his passionate commitment to the cause to excuse his truculent behavior.” Ancient writers used to speak of the truculent nations of the East; today one might speak of truculent adolescents or schoolboys. H.L. Mencken had this to say about Theodore Roosevelt:
“the America that Roosevelt dreamed of was always a sort of swollen Prussia, truculent without and regimented within.”
Perhaps engaged by Mencken’s use of the term, a leading biographer of that journalist, Terry Teachout, could write about him, “There is an interesting tension between the truculent pessimism of his philosophy and the infectious gusto of his temperament.” (3)
One may be truculent; one can also be sullen. Sullen, which means glum, morose, dour, gloomy, is derived ultimately from the word sole, which means “alone.” Thus, a sullen person is often also silent or alone. Early usages of it imply obstinacy or stubbornness, too. Thus, a sullen person is gloomy, ill-humored and often intractable or refractory. Macaulay used the word in his History of England: “The answer of James was a cold and sullen reprimand.” Shakespeare nicely caught the word in Venus and Adonis, “Still he is sullen, still he lours and frets.” Tennyson could use the simile “as sullen as a beast new-caged.” (4) We begin to see the wonderful flexibility of words when we recognize the wide linguistic reach of sullen: silent, gloomy, obstinate. If one tried to speak metaphorically, one can say, “as sullen as a Modigliani model at the Last Supper.” Now I suppose you have to look up “Modigliani…”
(4) Sullen also can describe a scene of natural or something immaterial.One might have a sullen earth or stream or the sea. The word lour is also useful: it means "to frown, scold; to look angry or sullen." OED s.v., Def. 1.
One step beyond being sullen is being severe. The Latin word underlying severe means “stiff” and suitable synonyms in English are rigorous, unsparing, austere, unbending, and ascetic.
“Severe is applicable to persons and their looks, acts, thoughts and utterances for which persons are responsible. In all these applications it implies rigorous standards of what is just, right ethical, beautiful, or acceptable and unsparing or exacting adherence to them.”(5)
(5) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 727.
The world of severe is the world of hardness—hard discipline, demands, communication. One might have a severe teacher or someone who is severe in dress. Edmund Wilson had this to say about Sunday School: “these bleak and severe Sunday mornings, thought they left me with a respect for the Bible, had the effect of antagonizing me against it.” A severe person is often also harsh or even cruel. One might have a severe taskmaster or piano teacher. If you have the words “rigorous” or “exacting” or “unsparing” also with you, you will understand and use severe well.
Someone who is dour is hard. That is, the Latin word durus, from which we get durable or duration, lies behind dour. Something durable is something that lasts because of its “hardness.” You can pronounce dour in two ways: as if it is DO-er or DOW-er. It means “hard, severe, bold, stern, fierce, hardy.” (6) Recent journalistic usages include the sentence: “It tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire;” “but it was his dour and pious grandmother who dominated his childhood;” “dour and melancholy;” “with his easy smile and enthusiastic English explanations, Mr. Barbot belied the myth of the dour French chef.” It can also suggest a note of stubbornness or obstinacy, thus bringing it within the orbit of sullen, as in this 1854 quotation: “Thornton is as dour as a door-nail; an obstinate chap.” (7) Or, “he was silent, gloomy, and dour, frequently irritable, unfriendly.” The universe of terms piles up nicely for you when you take a moment to sort through all the right words.
(6) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
(7) Quoted in OED, s.v., Def. 2.
Moving to the Softer Side of Life
Not everyone, thankfully, is truculent, sullen, dour or severe. Lots of people, actually, are pretty nice. We spend out lives trying to find them and work with them, though they often seem to be tantalizingly out of reach for us. We are left with the others. Yet, it is good to know the types of good people to work and learn with; maybe, if luck would have it, you can spend your life with some.
A transition person between on the way to softness is one who is pensive. The word is derived from the French word pensif, which means “thoughtful” or “meditative.” But if you think a long time, you tend to focus on all the difficult or challenging things of life, and you become “anxious” or “sorrowful” and, eventually, “sad” and “melancholic.” Thus, what began as a simple enough word to describe the act of thinking sometimes carries with it a larger and heavier freight—of potential sadness or melancholy.
Yet it need not carry with it the hint of melancholy. Charles Darwin, in his famous diary, the Voyage of the Beagle, could write:
“It was a pretty scene; but I missed that pensive stillness which makes the autumn in England indeed the evening of the year.” (8)
(8) Quoted in Century Dictionary, s.v.
A pensive person is a ruminative person, one who is given to meditation and reflection. Pensive, the Dictionary of Synonyms tells us:
“is not always clearly distinguishable from meditative, though at times it carries a stronger suggestion of dreaminess, of wistfulness, or of melancholy.” (9)
(9) Op. cit., p. 823.
If you are vivacious, however, you are full of good things. Indeed, the word vivacious is to the Latin vivax as tenacious is to tenax. The latter means to hold onto something with effort. As tenax has to do with “holding,” so vivax has to do with “living.” Someone who is vivacious is one who is “tenacious for life.” A vivacious person has vigorous powers of life, is lively or active, sprightly in temper or conduct. A vivacious person is animated, brisk, lively, sprightly, nimble. Why? Because such a person is “tenacious of life” and overflowing with life. One might have a vivacious and fun-loving friend. She might be vivacious as a spring morn or a cheerleader. He might be vivacious as a premium champagne. Ring Lardner could describe someone as “very pretty and vivacious; I have never met a girl with as much zip.” Anthropologists describe animals using words that have appeared here: “In contrast to the dour, lethargic, and solitary orang, the chimpanzee is highly active, vivacious and uninhibited.” Think of people who manifest this attribute; then the word will become part of your working vocabulary.
A person who is urbane is not necessarily pensive or vivacious; s/he is, however, refined, polished, civil, courteous, polite, dapper, charming, elegant, sophisticated, suave, and cultivated. The word, derived from “urban” goes back to fourteenth century France, where cities were just starting to populate the Mediterranean world.Castiglione’s Renaissance treatise on manners in the late 1520s emphasized the style of life fit for the new urban/court scene. The opposite of an urbane person is a rustic (from the Latin for a rural resident). Washington Irvine could write: ‘His manners were gentle, affable, urbane.” With some irony, however, a later 19th century writer could say, “In Eustace Chapuys, master of requests, he had a man of law,. . .urbane, alert, unscrupulous.” Thus, the two-edged sword of urbanity. It indicates both a polish and dash, a certain professionalism and courtesy, but it also suggests a person who has learned how to outsmart or outfox the rubes from rural climes.
Yet, it is the positive meaning which is most emphasized today. When Rex Harrison, who played Prof. Harry Higgins in the early 1960s hit My Fair Lady, died, the headline of his obituary read, “Rex Harrison, Leading Man with Urbane Wit, Dies at 82.” (10) One might have urbane wit, charm, or politeness. In fact, the word has recently been used to contrast the styles of NFL quarterbacks and sports bars.
"The American sports bar, that age-old nexus of unabashed testosterone and Milwaukee-brewed beer, is getting a makeover. Call it the Brady Effect. Whereas once the sports bar was content to evoke, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers' beef-jerky-gnawing quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, the new model is Tom Brady of the New England Patriots: urbane, dapper, conversant in topics that don't involve statistics and unembarrassed by a big fat pitcher of pink.” (11)
(11) Jonathan Miles, "Tom Brady, Pretty in Pink?" New York Times, October 4, 2009, Sec. ST.
Restive, Relentless, Mawkish, Maudlin
One of the reasons I love to write about words is that I inevitably end up learning new ones while thinking that I am the one who is teaching you. For example, when studying restive, which means, in the modern sense, “resisting control, intractable, refractory,” I ran across the word phantonym, a new coinage brought to our attention by Jack Rosenthal, a New York Times columnist. (12) He was pinch-hitting for William Safire, who, as the Times tells us that day was “on hiatus for a few weeks.” Turns out, however, that the very day that Rosenthal’s column appeared, Safire died. In any case, he introduced phantonym to me, a word which he says means “a word that looks as if it means one thing but means quite another.” An example is fulsome. If you heap fulsome praise on someone, it doesn’t mean that you are lauding them highly; it means you are giving excessive or insincere praise. Similar are the words enervation and penultimate. The former is often used incorrectly to mean “energized.” In fact, it means “exhaustion.” The second, rather than meaning something beyond the ultimate, something even trumping the best, means the “second to last.”
(12) "Phantonym," New York Times, September 27, 2009, p. 24.
So it is with restive, according to Rosenthal. He calls it a “double dicey word,” by which he means that it means neither restful nor restless. It is similar to restless, though the latter means unquiet or constantly stirring rather than stubborn, balky, intractable, which is what restive means. Yet, I can see restless and restive slowly shading off into each other. For example, when an article says that the customers are getting restive, what do you imagine the author means? S/he probably means unquiet or unsettled, rather than obstinate or stubborn. Yet restive is used. Indeed, restless has been used only 3X as frequently as restive in the NYT in the last 30 years, even though the former is a very common word and the latter relatively rare. One can have restive areas of Afghanistan or Pakistan or China (a frequent current usage), but it seems proper to use that word only if revolution is brewing or seething.
A relentless person is pitiless, merciless, implacable, even grim. The verb relent, derived from the Latin relentescere (to grow slack) originally meant to “melt under the influence of heat; to assume a liquid form; dissolve.” (13) By the time of Shakespeare, however, it took on its current meaning of softening in temper or growing more gentle. “I powr’d forth tears in vain…But fierce Andronicus would not relent,” says Shakespeare. The first appearance of relentless was in 1592: “Death is relentlesse, and will not be intreated.” John Milton gave us the most memorable use of the term in Paradise Lost, where he has Satan say, “Only in destroying I find ease/ To my relentless thoughts,” IX.130. Today the universe of relentless includes not only something of “indefinite duration or of unremitting activity” but also something which “promises not the slightest abatement in severity, violence, or intensity” as long as the strength lasts. (14) One might have relentless critics or enemies, relentless fury or discipline, relentless assaults or quests.
(13) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
(14) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 383.
When we are in the world of mawkish or maudlin, we are talking about something overly or sickeningly sentimental. Yet the words got there by such different routes that it might be instructive to trace those avenues. Maudlin is derived from the name of the (Biblical) Mary Magdalene. Though she appears many times in the Gospels, the most memorable occasion, and the occasion memorialized by the word, is when she is weeping at the tomb of Jesus. Thus, maudlin (the word Magdalene is easier to pronounce if you drop the “g” sound..Madeline then maudlin) grew to mean “given to tears, lachrymose” and, finally, to “characterized by shallow sentimentality; mawkishly emotional.” (15) One could speak of 1000 maudlin oaths of friendship or a “fit of maudlin affection.” Music can be maudlin, memoirs of disabled, abused or distressed people might be maudlin, appeals for money can be maudlin. One can narrate a maudlin tale of woe; one can demonstrate maudlin pomposity or be a maudlin self-pitier. I like a 2002 quotation: “The spiritual journey of our time begins with the maudlin and ascends, through torturous barings of the soul, to the falsely humble.”
(15) OED, s.v., Def. 3.
The word mawkish, because it sounds like hawkish, appears to be more harsh, but in fact it means the same thing as maudlin. Yet, a mawk, going back to the thirteenth century, is a “maggot.” From this inauspicious beginning the word mawkish took on the sense of something having a disgusting or nauseating smell or taste (which I suppose maggots would), and then took on the notion of what happens when you taste something nauseating: you become sick. The linguistic reach of mawkish didn’t include “imbued with sickly, false or feeble sentiment; overly sentimental” until the eighteenth century. John Keats wrote in an 1818 letter, “I hate a mawkish popularity. A critic of Charles Dickens could write: “The mawkish and unreal sentiment which constituted Mr. Dickens’s chief fault.” A sensitive consideration of the word is in this 1916 quotation: “As we have no wittier so we have no kindlier poet, though the wit keeps the kindliness from turning mawkish.” Then, from Psychology Today about a decade ago, “With a title like Angel Baby, you’d expect Michael Rymer’s first film to be a mawkish ode to parenthood.” Other synonyms for mawkish, which are too good to ignore, are gooey, slushy, soppy, mushy. For everything, there is a season.
Humoring You With the Humors
In the medical practice of classical antiquity the body was thought to consist of four humors or liquids, the right balancing of which was essential to a balanced or just personality. These were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. In medieval times, under the influence of Arabic thought, these humors were gradually understood in a more abstract way, to be temperaments or emotional/mental/moral aspects to a person. (16) By the late Middle Ages this had developed into the idea that each person was a combination of these four aspects or temperaments, with one dominating over the others. They are the choleric, melancholy, phlegmatic, sanguine. The choleric person, for example, is easily moved to anger (hence the name), but is also full of ambition, energy and passion for causes. The phlegmatic, being too full of phlegm, was listless, unemotional, even lazy and resistant to change. Yet, a phlegmatic person survives best in environments where lots of patience is needed. The melancholic person is often highly creative but is frequently overwhelmed by the cruelty and injustice in the world. Finally, the sanguine individual is full of blood, and is energetic, light-hearted, and fun-loving.
(16) An introduction is here:
Well, this type of approach to people has gradually faded, though it is experiencing a revival in, of all places, contemporary Christian psychology, but the words left behind as it left our intellectual house are useful. We can use the four terms in their classical senses to describe a person, if not a personality “type.” But there is one other word to add to the mix: saturnine. Saturnine is almost a phantonym, for it may give you the impression of someone who is shiny and sunny, like the pictures we have seen of Saturn or its rings. But it doesn’t mean that at all. A saturnine person is dark, dull, gloomy, sulky, dour, cold, glum. While the phlegmatic person is hard to arouse emotionally, and tends more towards apathy or imperturbability, the saturnine individual is sluggish, cold and gloomy. Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion, has been called phlegmatic, though he probably couldn’t be properly called saturnine.
The best visual image to clarify saturnine comes from medieval alchemy. In that discipline/world, every known planet was associated with a metal. The Sun was connected to gold, the Moon to silver, Mercury to that element, Mars to iron, Venus to copper, Jupiter to tin and Saturn to lead. Ah, there it is. To be saturnine is to be “leaden,” to be apparently weighed down with the heaviness of the world. Someone could be “grave and saturnine” in all he did. Addison, in 1711, said he “cast his readers into two general Divisions, the Mercurial and the Saturnine.” Dickens used the word: “Towlinson is saturnine and grim.” A new (1993) entry in the OED defines saturnine as “of appearance or mien: dark, grim, louring.” The word lour is a great one. It means to “frown” or “glower” at someone. Thus, the saturnine person not only has a “leaden” feel to them, but they have a sort of frowning or scowling or sullen appearance. Surveying modern usages of the term, we see how one author talked of an individual’s “saturnine fixation on everything blighting this mortal coil.” Another wrote about the “mysteriously saturnine picture of a morose seated angel in a luxuriantly rumpled dress. . .” Fiona Apple has been called “the powerfully saturnine singer-songwriter” and the late Susan Sontag wrote about one of Europe’s last intellectuals as “that Saturnine hero of modern culture” standing alone in the ruins of history.
As you can see, words tend to go on and on, sometimes with no apparent end in sight. Yet they give you windows into yourself and the world you inhabit. Pay special care to them, as you would to an inherited pendant, and they will glisten around your neck in all situations.