Jejune

I’m going to employ it in a post coming up.

Let’s get that word by its withers.

the-kings-englishKingsley Amis had a typically acerbic rant on this, imagining the transition of jej(e)une through three users:

Stage 1: A writes: “His arguments are unoriginal and jejune” (A knows that ‘jejune’ means ‘thin, unsatisfying’, a rare word, admittedly, but one with a nice ring to it).

Stage 2: B notices the nice ring. He doesn’t know what the word means and, of course, wouldn’t dream of consulting a dictionary even if he possessed one. There is something vaguely French as well as nice about the ring to ‘jejune’; in fact, now he comes to think of it, it reminds him of ‘jeune’, which he knows means ‘young’. Peering at the context, he sees that ‘jejune’ could mean, if not exactly ‘young’, then something like ‘un-grown-up, immature, callow’. Hooray! — he’s always needing words for that, and here’s a new one, one of superior quality, too.

Stage 3: B starts writing stuff like “much of the dialogue is jejune, in fact downright childish.” With the latest edition of OED giving ‘peurile’ as a sense of ‘jejune’, the story might be thought to be over, but there is one further stage.

Stage 4: Having ‘jeune’ in their heads, people who have never seen the word in print start pronouncing ‘jejune’ not as ‘djiJOON’ but ‘zherZHERN’, in the apparent belief that French people always give a tiny stutter when they say ‘jeune’. (I have heard ‘zherZHERN’ several times in the last few years). Finally C takes the inevitable step of writing ‘jejeune’ (I have seen several examples) or even, just that much better: “Although the actual arguments are a little jéjeune, the staging of the mass scenes are [sic] impressive.” Italics in original! – which, with the newly acquired acute accent in place set the seal on the deportation of an English word into French, surely a unique event.

That, pretty well, covers the waterfront.

Except …

Amis is self-evidently a boring old fart, protective of the language of , for and because of similar boring old farts.

For jejune is an early-seventeenth-century Anglicising of the Latin adjective, ieiunus [“having consumed no food or drink, fasting, hungry empty”].  No more, no less. Cicero, in his second letter to Atticus, is using it in a derived sense [“Deficient in goodness, meagre, starved”]. From there Cicero, elsewhere, makes simple metaphoric leaps and the term refers to unproductive land, and then to poor literary style.

In place of the Latinate term, we might supply, as the OED does:

dull, flat, insipid, bald, dry, uninteresting; meagre, scanty, thin, poor; wanting in substance or solidity.

De haut en bas

An objection might be those terms, as a catalogue, are hardly a shorthand. Nor, singly or collectively, do they convincingly express the note of superior snootiness implied when we deploy jejune. For that we need to go to Shaw’s stage-direction in Act II of Arms and the Man, telling us more than we need to know of the Byronic Major Sergius Saranoff:

By his brooding on the perpetual failure, not only of others, but of himself, to live up to his imaginative ideals, his consequent cynical scorn for humanity, the jejune credulity as to the absolute validity of his ideals and the unworthiness of the world in disregarding them, his wincings and mockeries under the sting of the petty disillusions which every hour spent among men brings to his infallibly quick observation, he has acquired the half tragic, half ironic air, the mysterious moodiness, the suggestion of a strange and terrible history that has left him nothing but undying remorse, by which Childe Harold fascinated the grandmothers of his English contemporaries.

Which is why, in this intended post, it will be applied to David Cameron.

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Filed under David Cameron, George Bernard Shaw, Oxford English Dictionary, prejudice, Quotations, reading

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