The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: July 2012


The word tarnation popped into my head the other day and I realized that I had no idea what it meant.  I had always had the sense that it was some type of Americanism and, like many Americanisms, that it was also a euphemism.  Beyond those vague impressions, I had never thought much about the word since the last time I had heard it from the mouth of Yosemite Sam many years ago.

I can’t recall what brought it to my mind now, but as I looked into it, I found that there are two competing theories in relation to where the word comes from.  The first is that it is simply a variant version of ‘darnation’, an American euphemism for ‘damnation’.

The second theory is that it is actually a combination of two words that make up a euphemistic phrase.  The original phrase was ‘eternal damnation’, which, in some 19th Century American accents, could be pronounced as ‘etarnal damnation’.  From here, the words were simply combined into a new word, ‘tarnation’, which combined elements from both words in the phrase.  This process is reminiscent of the one which formed the Elizabethan euphemism ‘zounds’, which was a somewhat tortuous combination of ‘God’s wounds’.

Whichever theory is correct, both methods are interesting and represent potentially fruitful areas to explore for modern language lovers, whether they are writers or not.  New terms and modifications such as those that produced the word ‘tarnation’ are valid linguistic expressions, though, as with other creative uses of language, I believe that the writer bears the responsibility to ensure that any new words created proceed from legitimate antecedents and are not simply created ex nihilo.


As I have heard and seen the word risible used, it has always meant something like ridiculous or preposterous, even spurious.

However, this is a somewhat accretionary meaning that has developed over time since the word came over from French.  It is originally descended from the Latin word ridere, which means to laugh, combined with the suffix -ibilis, meaning to be able.  So, risible means something that is able to be laughed at.

This meaning holds in modern English usage, we also have the word laughable, which means the same thing  Both laughable and risible bring with them an implication of dismissiveness, by which I mean that it is generally understood that if someone describes, for instance, an argument you are making as laughable, they don’t literally mean that they found it funny or actually laughed when hearing it.  Rather, rather they mean that it was of such poor quality that it was deserving of ridicule.  The concept of laughter is being used in this instance as an intensifier to communicate an insult and, in this respect, both words are the same.

However, there is something about risible that has always seemed more intense to me, something that makes its use more insulting than calling something merely laughable, and I belive it stems from the non-English origin of the word.  The meaning of most compound words based at least partially on a native English word (in this case, laugh) is usually understood easily because one understands the words on which it is based.

This is not always the case with borrowed words, a problem which is particularly acute in English due to the heavy French overlay that came with the Norman conquest.  Even if one knows the definition of a word, there are times when loan words happen to correspond with words in the receiving language and the meanings become unintentionally intertwined.

I feel that something like has happened in the case of risible in that it bears an unmistakable, though purely arbitrary resemblance to the word ‘rise’.  This is a subtle connection that is likely to be made only subconsciously, along the following lines:  while something that is laughable might provoke scorn and derisive laughter, something that is risible is so outrageous that it provokes a reaction, specifically one in which the offended party rises to challenge the speaker.


Somber is another word I became interested in through Spanish.  To clarify, it is not that I had never encountered the word before, but rather that I had never stopped to think about it until I came across its Spanish variant, sombrío.

To go back to its roots, somber derives from a compound Latin term made up of two elements, sub-, meaning ‘under’ and -umbra, meaning ‘shadow’.  So, the original meaning has to do with something that is under 0r something which casts a shadow.

In Spanish, both the literal and figurative meanings persist in the word and its variants.  For instance, sombra means shadow and a sombrero is literally something that casts a shadow over the face of the wearer, while sombrío conveys the same emotional sense as its English counterpart but has additional power because the connection with shadow is more readily understood.  The explicit nature of this dual meaning allows the poetic possibilities of the word to be used to full effect.  In English we have to resort to different words altogether when talking about a literal shadow and a somber mood, thereby breaking the implicit connection between the terms and weakening their poetic force wrought by visual and auditory correspondence.

It seems to me that what English vocabulary has gained in variety due to its now thousand-year old shotgun marriage with French has come at a significant cost in terms of its aesthetics and poetic possibilities.  The average English speaker does not understand the connection between shadow and somber the way a Spanish speaker would understand the implicit connection between sombra and sombrío.  I can’t help but feel that instances such as this represent a misalignment that weakens English as a language.  I see it as a tear in the fabric of the language that has been patched over by time but remains, nevertheless, a blemish.

Finally, we should be remembered that language is a living thing and nothing prevents us from rebuilding it and driving it in a direction that is pleasing to us, and all the better if this is done in accordance with history, tradition and the grammatical rules of the language.  For instance, the purely English replacement for somber would seem to be ‘enshadowed’ or perhaps ‘enshaded’.  Personally, I prefer the first of these.

Some might laugh, but to my ears describing the mood in a room as ‘enshadowed’ or even loading figurative meaning onto the word ‘shadowy’  so that it is not just a physical description has a nice ring to it and is the kind of creative and exploratory endeavor that should be encouraged.


Jovial is an odd word in the modern context.  Its meaning is clear and straightforward: happy, jolly, good-natured, etc.  But the reason why this is so is both surprising and interesting.

The root of the word is jove, which is actually Jove, an alternative name for the Roman god Jupiter, who was seen by the Romans as equivalent to the Greek Zeus.  So, to be jovial then, is to be like Jupiter.  But which Jupiter, the god or the planet?

If one examines the mythology surrounding Jupiter, one does not get the sense that he was viewed as an overly ‘jolly’ deity.  In fact, as the sky-dwelling, thunderbolt wielding king of the Roman pantheon, he seems more likely to inspire terror than laughter.

If we then look to the planet for the source of the association of Jupiter with merriment, we have better luck.  Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has traditionally been identified in astrological symbolism with prosperity, good fortune and the preservation of vitality.  It seems to be this association, rather than the one with the god, that has lent the word its meaning.

The word first cropped up in English in the late 16th century, just as the era of Renaissance magic was giving way to the era of early modern science.  I like to think of it as a faint echo from a prior era, a reminder that, to our ancestors, all things have an essence or particular nature, and that just as one thing is connected to another thing, the natures of those things are also connected, all forming a part of the fabric of the ordered cosmos.