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HOLDING INNOCENT children hostage in return for building a wall is despicable. And thus, the word “despicable” earns a place in the SimanaitisSays series Etymology for our Times.

Merriam-Webster defines “despicable” as “deserving to be despised: so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation.” Synonyms include “contemptible, low-minded and scurvy;” more on this last word anon.

The etymology of despicable traces directly to Late Latin despicabilis, from the Latin despicari, “to despise.” M-W lists despicable’s first known English use in 1553, so it would have been a fairly new term to that wordsmith extraordinaire William Shakespeare, 1564–1616.

Seeking more despicable references, I turned to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and its magna-glass viewer. Sure enough, M-W’s 1553 citation was there: A fellow named Eden wrote in his Treatise of Newe Industry, “The byldinge(s) are despicable.”

By modern conventions, sir, so is your spelling.

The OED’s despicable references bypass Shakespeare to 1667 and Milton’s Paradise Lost: “All the Earth he gave thee to possess and rule. No despicable gift.”

By 1699, the word gained political usage in the words of a guy named Dampier: “Their insolent masters the Portuguese: than whom there are not a more despicable people now in all the Eastern States.”

And a few years later, 1710, Lady M.W. Montegu confided to Bishop Burnet, “There is hardly a character in this world more despicable, or more liable to universal ridicule, than that of a learned woman.”

Well, geez, whose side was she on?

As for “scurvy” as a synonym for despicable, M-W focuses on the noun “scurvy” defining the disease caused by lack of vitamin C. Sailors suffered from scurvy until Scottish physician James Lind came along. He’s known as the pioneer of hygiene in the Royal Navy (now there’s a life’s challenge) and figured out in the 1740s that doctoring the sailors’ daily grog of watered rum with citrus juice was a scurvy preventative. Hence, “Limey” for Brit sailors.

A grog line onboard ship. Image from Military History Now.

Scurvy can be used as an adjective too, albeit archaically, its meaning synonymous with despicable, mean, or scabby. In King Lear, 1605, Shakespeare has Lear say to Gloucester, “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost.”

And in The Tempest, 1611, Trinculo calls Caliban “A most scurvy monster.”

I conclude with an historical use of despicable in 1874 that’s not out of place today: “The immorality of James’s Court was hardly more despicable than the imbecility of his government.”

Ouch. A good one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Michael Rubin
    July 2, 2018


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