Friday, December 13, 2013

Word of the day: inane

Last night I went to a concert that included a performance of the Bach Magnificat. (Bravo, musicians, and especially the fourth-chair violist.) How to get from Bach to inane ? The word at the end of this line of the text caught my eye: “Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes” (Luke 1:53). Or as the King James Version has it, “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

So I looked up inane . Its source is the Latin inānis , “empty, useless, vain.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word to 1662, when it meant “empty, void.” From the OED ’s earliest citation: “one little spot of an infinite inane capacity.” By approximately 1667, inane was working as a noun, meaning “that which is inane, void, or empty; void or empty space; vacuity; the ‘formless void’ of infinite space.” By 1710, the noun applied to persons: “an empty-headed, unintelligent person.” The OED ’s citation is from Alexander Pope’s correspondence: “Being all alike Inanes, & Umbratiles, we Saunter to one anothers Habitations & daily assist each other in doing Nothing at all.” And by 1819, the adjective came to apply to persons or their actions: “void or destitute of sense; silly, senseless; empty-headed.” The OED ’s first such citation is from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci: “some inane and vacant smile.”

And that’s my word of the day, whose etymology, early meaning, and secret life as a noun were all news to me.

[Umbratile? “One who spends his time in the shade” (OED ).]

comments: 1

Daughter Number Three said...

From adjective to noun and back to adjective. Why doesn't this language hold still?