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Word Tasting Note: "Supercilious"

A friend recommended I look at the Brooks Brothers site for some style ideas. But ignore the models. They're kinda...

Well, as I observed when I looked, they're standard glamour catalogue models trying to look high-class or intellectual and they just come off supercilious.

And then I said, "Supercilious. Must use that for a Word Tasting Note."

It is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, isn't it? A word for people who look at things with the arch eyebrows and droopy eyelids of cool superiority, dryly commenting with minimal enthusiasm: "Super. Delicious." They may want to seem super serious, though if they don't pull it off they can look a little silly. But they're always annoying. They may think themselves supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but everybody else sees them as something quite atrocious.

I think supercilious is a good word for it. Five syllables in a two-plus-three rhythm: already demanding and overfull of itself just for that. Three hisses, one at each end and one in the middle; between all that, a pop on the lips and a licking liquid. Aside from the /p/ and the the back vowel /u/, it's all on or near the tip of the tongue — rather superficial. Ah, superficial: a word that likely echoes an effect on the sense of supercilious. And then, to add to the effete sound of the enunciation, there is an echo of the weak-brained from superstitious. And a little bit of the sound of shilly-shallying.

Actually, look at the sounds of the words that the Visual Thesaurus gives as synonyms: sneering, snide, sniffy, swaggering, imperious, prideful, overbearing, lordly, haughty, disdainful. Count all the s's and l's in there... Could be coincidence, of course. But doesn't that parselmouth sound seem appropriate for these Slytherins in the school of life?

So... not so super, per se. More a piece of parsley (French persil) on the plate of society, but not as good for you. We know that super is from Latin for 'above'... but what about cilious? Is it a kind of wispy cloud? Nope, that's cirrus. Think back to your biology classes. What are those little eyebrow-like hairs on paramecia? Not Scylla as in and Charybdis, though the supercilious may seem as inviting an option as those creatures. And not Cecilia, who may be supercilious. No, just cilia. From Latin for 'eyelashes.' But actually the Latin word cilium originally meant 'eyelid' — it's related to celare 'cover, conceal' (and the ceal in conceal is from celare).

Sooo... Latin supercilium means what? Yes, 'eyebrow.' As in the raised eyebrow of haughtiness. So there: it has been revealed. But you had that all figured out already, didn't you.


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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 27th, 5:15 PM
Comment by: James R.
What a wonderful idea! Wine reviewing a word. Andre Voznesensky, the great Russian poet, once said, "My name is a mansion with many rooms in it." I doubt if it had the square footage you found in supercilious. Loved it!

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