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                       Essay Sixteen, Oh, the People's You'll Meet III


One of the most liberating realizations for those who want to enhance their speaking and writing ability is that in order to be good and even excellent in communication you need not invent any thought or word. We are defined by a cultural tradition of communication, from which we draw our resources as we communicate. The tradition can be looked at as a prison, but I see it is a prism, a placed for beautiful refracted light and stunning kaleidoscopic shapes. We learn to think, write and speak best when we have internalized the ways that people have said things in our language and tradition before us.  


Others pointed this out long ago. The literary critic Northrop Frye, for example, said, laconically, “poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels.” Harold Bloom, echoing this sentiment, said, “poetry begins, always, when someone who is going to become a poet reads a poem.”  (1) Or, as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1940:


     “Books descend from books as families descend from families. Some descend from            Jane Austen; other from Dickens. They resemble their parents, as human children              resemble their parents; yet they differ as children differ, and revolt as children revolt.”        (2) 

(1) Thomas McFarland, "Field, Constellation, and Aesthetic Object," in Karl Kroeber and Gene W. Ruoff, Romantic Poetry: Recent Revisionary Criticism, p. 24. 

(2) Paper read in Brighteon to Workers' Educational Association; later published as "The Leaning Tower."

Thus, as you formulate a language that fits you, realize it will be composed of scraps you have read here or there and phrases you have picked up that sound attractive. Yet, you filter them through the fiber of your own personality, applying them to situations and people that are uniquely yours.


Words that interest me in this chapter can be grouped in two categories:  (1) words expressing submission or fear, such as craven, timorous, pavid, supine, servile, obsequious, sequacious; (2) negative or unimpressive reactions you can display, such as simpering, smirking, captious, caviling, carping, callous, waspish, mordant, coltish and snappish. Words that I would like to get to but for which space doesn’t allow are: (3) those describing your work ethic, such as assiduous, sedulous, adroit; and (4) some which capture various types of people, such as amiable, munificent, supercilious, superannuated, libertine, and abstemious.  


                                                Words of Submission/Fear


We don't use the word craven much these days (though that can change!), but when it appears it is usually in political or religious writings and expresses the supposed moral weakness of a person. The OED says that craven can either be an adjective or noun. As an adjective it means "cowardly, weak-hearted, abjectly pusillanimous," and as a noun it is a "confessed or acknowledged coward." (3)

(3) OED, s.v., Defs. A1 and B1.


Recent usages of craven illustrate its most popular contexts today. After the consecration of Bishop Eugene Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop (November 2003), the Southern Baptists called this consecration "a craven act of moral rebellion and rejection of the Holy Scriptures." Many Episcopalians would have thought of the act as a courageous one, but Episcopalians and Southern Baptists are rarely accused of seeing the world similarly. Or, after President Clinton ordered the bombing in Iraq in mid-December 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, many Americans might have agreed with the Washington Times when it called this bombing a "craven act" to distract attention from the real issue before the American people.


Memorial services for victims of human acts of violence are also good places where craven tends to pop up. A speaker, remembering the victims of downed Pam Am flight 103 spoke of the "brutal and craven act of violence" that killed the people.


These usages are confirmed by historical examples given in the OED. Shakespeare, as expected, gives us the word, but as a noun (Henry V, IV.7.139):


      "Is it fit this soldier keep his oath?/ He is a craven and villain else"


Then, in its adjectival use, we have "the poor craven bridegroom said never a word," or "all other feelings had given place to a craven fear for his life." I like the theological use of the term by a seventeenth century expositor of I Corinthians 15:51ff., where St. Paul talks about the vanquishing of the last enemy we face: death. The commentator says, "Death is here out-braved, called craven to his face." (4)

(4) I have written about the legal background of the term in my former web site (now is  I have not yet uploaded that old essay.


A person can have a “craven spirit” or be a “craven traitor.” People can be “craven members of the council;” one might be subject to “craven special-interest politics.” The term also has resonance in the literary world. In describing Hawthorne’s 1850 classic, The Scarlet Letter, Brenda Wineapple says:


     “This tormented lover, the pious and passive Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, is a                  community guru, gifted with eloquence and steeped in weakness. Pale, obsessive, and      craven, he cannot confess his crime, rationalizing that men such as he retain such ‘zeal      for God’s glory and man’s welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and          filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be achieved by them.’”      (5)

(5) Introduction to the Signet Classic Edition, p. xii.

Enough on craven; use it sparingly but have it, like prosecutors have the death penalty, to use for special occasions.


If a person is timorous, s/he is “fearful; timid; shy; shrinking.”  A timorous person also is “characterized by fear or weakly hesitant.” (6) Yet, as the OED reminds us, it can be used, though less frequently, as a neutral term to describe the appropriate shyness, modesty or reserve of a person.  

(6) Century Dictionary, s.v., Defs. 1 and 2.


Shakespeare uses the term often (All's Well, II.5.86-87):


    “Like a timorous thief, most fain would steal

    What law does vouch mine own"


Then, in Othello (Othello I.1.75ff):


    “Rodrigo. Here is her father’s house.  I’ll call aloud...Iago.  Do, with the timorous accent      and dire yell…As when..the fire is espied in populous cities"


Ralph Waldo Emerson, using language that sounds curiously twenty-first century, wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:


     “Against all timorous counsels he had the courage to seize the moment.”


The two meanings of timorous, as cravenly fearful or modestly respectful, are evident in some quotations from the sixteenth century. First, we have, from 1502:  “The grace whereby we may be made humble and timorous to God” (i.e., properly reverential). Contrast this with Thomas More, from 1534: “This fault of pusillanimity and timorous mind” (i.e., abjectly fearful).  Yet in current usage it almost always is refers to being unduly frightened or apprehensive. Christopher Buckley, the son of the late William Buckley, used the word twice in a memorial essay on his parents and a eulogy for his father, in 2009. The quotation from the eulogy is humorous:


     “One October day in 1997, I arrived from Washington in Stamford (CT) for a long-                planned overnight sail. As the train pulled into the station, I looked out and saw people      hanging onto lampposts at 90-degree angles, trying not to be blown away by the                northeast gale that was raging. Indeed, it resembled a scene from The Wizard of Oz.          When the train doors opened, I was blown back into the carriage by the 50-mile-an-          hour wind. I managed to crawl out onto the platform, practically on all fours,                        whereupon my father greeted me with a chipper, “We’ll have a brisk sail.”


     I looked up at him incredulously and said, “We’re going out in this?”


     Indeed we did go out in it. We always went out in it. Some of my earliest memories are      of my mother, shrieking at him as the water broke over the cockpit and the boat                pitched furiously in boiling seas, “Bill — Bill! Why are you trying to kill us?”


    But the cries of timorous souls never fazed him. He had been going out in it for years,       ever since he published his first book, God and Man At Yale. Nor did he need a sailboat     to roil the waters. His Royal typewriter — and later, Word Star — would do.” (7)

(7)  (Note in 2020, I am sure, if the article is still available, the citation is much simpler).


We can go much more quickly in dealing with the next three:  pavid, supine, servile.  The word pavid is rarely used, but it packs a simple power to it. It simply means “fearful, timid.”  The first appearance in English was in a 1656 dictionary: “Pavid, fearful, timorous, quaking, starting.”  It seems to have been a favorite word of the nineteenth century author Thackeray. In an early novel, Sketches and Travels in London, when describing the competitive and vindictive spirit of carriage-drivers in that metropolis, he wrote:


     “From the noble’s broidered hammer-cloth, or the driving-seat of the common coach,        each driver assailed the other with floods of ribald satire. The pavid matron within the        one vehicle (speeding to the Bank for her semestrial pittance) shrieked and trembled;        the angry Dives hastening to his office (to add another thousand to his heap), thrust his      head over the blazoned panels, and displayed an objurgation [i.e., ability to swear]            which his very Menials could not equal. . .” (8)

(8) The quotation is taken from what we now call "Novels By Eminent Hands," which first appeared serialized as Punch Prize Novelists in Punch, from April-October 1847. It was reprinted in Miscellanies, vol II, in 1856, first receiving there the title Novels by Eminent Hands. The particular "eminent hand" under which this "novel" was published was George de Barnewell. The quotation above is taken from the edition published by Leypoldt and Hunt in New york in 1867, p. 237. Whew!


As I have argued in an earlier book that the best way to look at learning in our new Internet-driven learning culture, is to affirm that “way leads to way.” (9) So, in researching pavid, I came across an article about St. Olaf College (MN) which has a “curious word of the week contest,” put out by the Rolvaag Memorial Library on campus. Pavid was one of the words suggested, but I found myself drawn to another word used: clipsome.  Someone who is clipsome is “embraceable” or “fit to be clasped or embraced.” (10)

(9) It's All the Basics:  Teaching and Learning for the 21st Century (2010), Ch. 4.

(10) OED, s.v. The article on St. Olaf appears in the December 1, 2008 edition of US Federal News.


Then it dawned on me that I had read the verb clip, meaning “embrace,” in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a few years back. Sure enough, when checking it out, I came across this quotation, said by Marcius (Coriolanus, I. 6):


      “O! let me clip ye

     In arms as sound as when I woo`d, in heart

     As merry as when our nuptial day was done,

     And tapers burn`d to bed ward,” 


I wasn’t intending to write about clipping or clipsome, but once you begin to learn things about words you haven’t discovered, you just can’t stop.


Well, moving on,  if someone is servile, they are “cringing, fawning” or “slavishly deferential or obedient.” Such a person is “base, lacking independence.” Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure:  “A breath thou art/ Servile to all the skyey influences,” III.i.9. One might have a “servile adoption of received opinions.” Or, from a nineteenth century historian:  


     “Political talent and ambition, having no sphere for action, steadily decay, and servile,        enervating, and vicious habits disproportionately increase.” (11)

(11) Quoted in Century Dictionary, s.v., Def. 4. I have no idea if the sentiment is true: it sounds like a moralistic statement so common in nineteenth century historians.


In today’s journalism and writing, one person talked about a reviewer’s possibly being “pathetically servile” because he sought the author’s hand in marriage.  Another spoke of “a servile class of hunchbacks all named Igor.” One might have a servile attitude; someone might want to perpetuate the servile status of a long-oppressed people. You might do something in a servile manner or take on a servile role in a meeting, the office, a classroom, etc.  It is a great word to use judiciously with people.

If you are supine, you are lying on your back facing upwards. Thus, you can lie supine in the bottom of a canoe and stare upward at the immaculate azure of the sky. But even more frequently it is used to describe a person who is morally or mentally inactive, inert, or indolent.  Even more than this, it “implies abject or cowardly inertia or passivity usually as a result of apathy or indolence.” (12)

(12) Quoted in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 428.


One might have supine acquiescence of people to something; Aldous Huxley, in a statement he wouldn’t have wanted to have quoted in 2010 spoke of Arabs in this way. In the essay “In a Tunisian Oasis,” published in The Olive Tree, he wrote:


     “Too much insistence on the fatalism inherent in their (Arabs’) religion has reduced            them to the condition of static lethargy and supine incuriousness in which they now            find themselves.” (13)

(13) Quoted in Milton Birnbaum, Aldous Huxley:  A Quest for Values, p. 162. 


If Huxley’s observation was true at one time, it might have been that people were lethargic not because of their religion but because of the crushing circumstances that dominated their lives in the early 1920s, the period in which he was writing.  After all, with the dying of the Ottoman Empire and the increasingly sinewy stretch of the colonial muscle of France and Britain, any “Mohammedan,” as a Muslim would have then been called in the West, had to be rather servile and supine lest s/he run afoul of the colonial brutality of the Great Powers.  The late twentieth century, and the twenty-first, shows a different Islamic reality. . .


The word supine is often used today. Senators are described as being “timid and supine” in the face of efforts to tilt courts in a conservative direction. One might have a supine board of directors or supine shareholders whom other shareholder-activists are trying to stimulate. You might have supine regulators, who cave in to industry demands when they are drafting regulatory guidance on anything from trucking weight standards to contents of drugs.  The possibilities for the use of the word are nearly endless; now it is up to you to find some!


                                                   Obsequious, Sequacious 


We continue on with words expressing submission.  I wonder why there are so many of them, with relatively few good words for expressing independence or boldness.  As if to confirm my point, the OED defines bold both in terms of what it is (daring, courageous), and in terms of what it is not: “not timid or fearful.” (14) I guess we are more interested in making sure people comply, and then we often criticize them for complying (i.e., calling them servile, supine, etc.) than in encouraging courageous action.


(14) OED, s.v., Def. 1. 


Originally someone who was obsequious was “compliant with the will or wishes of another; prompt to serve, please; obedient, dutiful.”  The word has  evolved in a more negative direction. Now it means “unduly or servilely compliant; overly submissive; fawning, sycophantic.”  You can do something with obsequious politeness, have an obsequious grin, be served by obsequious waiters, speak with an obsequious tone. One can arrange a spectrum of terms indicating greater and greater deference. I suppose they might run:  agreement, deference, flattering, obsequiousness.  


Ambrose Bierce, the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer, humorist and poet, has a poem, Judex Judicatus, about an obsequious Judge Armstrong. (15) When the poor seek his aid, he responds as “stern as Rhadamanthus.” He “petrified them with a moral frown.” He “throw[s] their households open to the crowd/ And bawl[s] their secret bickerings aloud.”  But when “Wealth before you suppliant appears,” the story is different. All of a sudden transactions are completed in secret. “The blinds are drawn, the lights diminished burn/ Lest eyes too curious should look and learn,/ That gold refines not, sweetens not a life/ Of conjugal brutality and strife…”  Instead of open justice there is “whispered evidence.”  There is “collusion” and “sealed exhibits” and “secret pleas” that eventuate in the “unrecorded and unseen decree,” which is topped off by the “midnight signature.” Then, in the concluding stanza, Bierce upbraids the state—California—where this happens.  



    “O California!  Long-enduring land,

    Where Judges fawn upon the Golden Hand,

    Proud of such service to that rascal thing

    As slaves would blush to render to a king. . .”


You get the picture; the judge is one who “perform[s] obsequious " before the rich.


We see the word sequence in sequacious. The Latin underlying it is sequor, “I follow.” Thus, sequacious has something to do with following someone or something. From the seventeenth century until today it generally has meant “given to slavish or unreasoning following of others (esp. in matters of thought or opinion). From 1885:  “I have been drawn into Tractarianism, not by the contagion of a sequacious zeal, but by the inner force of an inherited pietism.” Or, from much more recently, “in a world peopled with limp critics and sequacious art historians the ruthlessness with which he used the battering ram of talent invariably earned my admiration..” (16) One might have sequacious investors or a sequacious helpmeet. 

(16) From John Pope-Hennessy, Learning to Look, reviewed by Grace Glueck, "The Pope of the Art World," New York Times, May 26, 1991.


But I discovered another meaning of sequacious in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Aeolian Harp. Written in 1795, on the eve of his marriage to Sara Fricker, the poem speaks glowingly, in the first stanza, of his “pensive Sara” as they are sitting beside their cottage watching the drama of the night unfold. Then, in the second stanza, he turns to the lute (the Aeolian harp), which “like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover,/ It pours such sweet upbraiding.” Then, he follows:


    “And now, its strings

    Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes

    Over delicious surges sink and rise. . .” (17)

(17) Lines 18-20. Text is here:


Then, I looked more closely at the OED and discovered that another definition of sequacious was as follows: “Of musical notes, metrical feet: Following one another with unvarying regularity of order.” Thus, the two meanings of “follow.”


                                              A Cornucopia of Terms


I sometimes think one could go on forever in writing about words. Maybe one can. But rather than following that thought today, I conclude this chapter with darting mention of about te  other terms that (mostly) capture negative personal reactions to people or situations.  People can be:  captious, caviling, carping, censorious, callous, snappish, waspish, coltish, mordant, mincing, simpering, smirking.


Let’s begin with a smile. The two terms describing that are simpering and smirking.  A  simpering person gives a weak, affected, or self-conscious smile. From 1770: “She. . . lisps affectedly, simpers designedly, and looks conceitedly.” Or, from 1891:  “She smiled and simpered and tried to avoid the question.”  The reason people might be smiling self-consciously is that they might be sly or coy.  Recent usages of it include:  “a simpering romantic,” or, derogatorily, “having weak hands and a simpering smile ‘like a girl’s.’” We also have a “simpering, twittering airhead of traditional operetta” and “decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame.”

Well, two of the words defining simper(ing) in the OED are smirking and mincing.  A smirking person is one who also smiles self-consciously but in a self-satisfied, affected and conceited way. One might have a “smirking, haughty German cabaret diva” or a lawyer who committed the “high crime” of “smirking in the courtroom.” I usually think of someone who smirks as a person trying to give a message that s/he is superior to the people or situation at hand.  


If you have a mincing smile, it means you are showing affected daintiness, elegance and precision in that smile.  Normally when you give a mincing smile it is because you are acting or have uttered something in an affectedly refined or precise manner.  Maybe you are prone to using Latinisms or French phrases.  People who do this are fun to make fun of. . .


If you have a mordant wit or smile or humor, it is caustic, burning, biting, sharply critical.  “The mordant turn of his last paragraphs extinguished. . .sympathy.”  


Someone who is coltish is fun-loving, energetic, and playful. There might be some impish or puckish charm in such a person, but the overriding concept is of energy.  Normally, women have a monopoly on the term, though occasionally a man can be called coltish.  One can have coltish vigor, charm, mannerisms. Recently Rihanna was described as having a “coltish chilliness.”  (18)

(18) Nate Chinen, "New CDs," New York Times, July 20, 2009, C5.


A waspish person, like the insect it is derived from, stings.  Or, more precisely, to be waspish means “quick to resent any trifling injury or affront; irascible, petulantly spiteful.” (19) An early (1673) usage puts together a lot of helpful words in one list:  “The leaven of whose religion makes them waspish, peevish, touchy, clamorous.”  If you are snappish, you are almost being waspish. To be snappish is to be “ready or apt to snap or bite.” It includes the idea of being “sharp in reply; apt to speak angrily or tartly; tart; crabbed; chiding; scolding; faultfinding.” One might be said to have a “snarling, snappish style.”  When Nancy Reagan became First Lady, there was a concern among some of her friends that she might become “irritable and snappish” because she liked everything just so. (20)

(19) OED, s.v., Def. 2.

(20) Obituary for Jane Weinberger, New York Times, July 16, 2009, B12.


If a person is captious, caviling, carping or censorious it means that they find fault with another (usually you!). An easy way to remember captious is by hearing its tone.  A captious person tends to “catch” others or look for opportunities, as John Bunyan said in Pilgrim’s Progress, “to lie at the catch.” The Pharisees are portrayed in the New Testament as captious critics of Jesus. If you are cavilling at someone, you are raising captious or frivolous or petty or picayune objections to what they have done. One person has said that the difference between cavilling and good criticism is whether or not it comes from candor. All these things are hard to recognize from just looking at a person; real discernment is needed.


If you are a carping person you also are captious or cavilling.  You are censorious, which means you are “addicted to censure” or “severely critical; faultfinding.” Perhaps we now have an explanation for the popularity of Mr. Rogers in the 1970s-1990s. Here, at last, was someone who was going to tell us, and our children, that they/we were someone “special.”  He wasn’t carping, censorious, cavilling, captious.


Finally, if you are callous, you are hardened or indurated; you are insensitive or unfeeling around others. “It is an immense blessing to be perfectly callous to ridicule.”  If mordant usually appears with “wit,” and captious often comes along with “critics,” the word callous most often appears with “disregard.” You can also have a callous reaction, person, or criminal. One can have a callous judge, officer or killer.  


Though many of these terms had to be defined rather briefly, all are useful for you in learning how to describe people more precisely. In addition, there were about eight adjectives I would have liked to get into here, but space didn’t permit.  Someday, perhaps, I will bring you into the fun of superannuated and supercilious and assiduous and adroit and sedulous and munificent and libertine and abstemious and amiable.  In the meantime, you have many words for many seasons.

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