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ETYMOLOGY: PEEVISH, PETULANT

“PETULANT” WAS the first word that came to mind when I heard Trump’s threat to dump immigrants into U.S.sanctuary cities.

But then etymology furthered my enlightenment. According to Merriam-Webster, the adjective petulant means “1: insolent or rude in speech or behavior. 2: characterized by temporary or capricious ill humor: peevish.”

Which, in turn, led me to M-W’s definition of the adjective peevish. “1. querulous in temperament or mood: FRETFUL. 2: perversely obstinate // a peevish child. 3: marked by ill temper // has a peevish, even spiteful, streak.”

Image from The Atlantic.

There are good arguments that either word applies, but “peevish” really nails it. Among synonyms for this word are perverse, short-tempered, and snarky. Remind you of anyone?

Etymologies. I had mistakenly thought that petulant was etymologically related to petty, but it’s not: Petty traces to the French petit, “little.” Petulant, to the Latin petere, “to go to,” “to attack.”

Image by Evan Vucci/AP from USA Today.

M-W traces peevish to Middle English pevish, meaning “spiteful.” The word’s first known use is “in the 15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1.”

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary provides more information on peevish: “First evidenced in the end of the 14th c., but rare before 1500. Derivation unknown. The exact sense of the adj. in many of the early quotations is difficult to fix.”

I’m inclined to agree: “1393 Langl. ‘And bad hym, go pisse with hus plough, peyuesshe shrewe!”

William Langland was a 14th-century Middle English poet, the presumed author of Piers Plowman. This allegorical narrative poem on religious themes preceded and influenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

“Langland’s Dreamer,” from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Here’s another citation from the OED: “1559 Cranmer. ‘Not onely foolyshe frowarde and obstinate, but also peuysshe, peruerse and indurate.’ ”

Thomas Cranmer, 1489–1556, English cleric, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I.

“The Most Reverend Father in God Thomas Archebyshop of Canterburye” was a leader in the English Reformation. He also helped build the case for annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage (five more marriages to come).

Image by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters from cnbc.com.

It would be anachronistic to refer to Cranmer as Henry VIII’s consigliere, but you get my drift. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

3 comments on “ETYMOLOGY: PEEVISH, PETULANT

  1. sabresoftware
    April 17, 2019

    “(six more marriages to come)”, surely only five (more).

    • simanaitissays
      April 17, 2019

      Agg! Thanks, sabresoftware. My carelessness; corrected above. (Was I thinking of Henry IX? And don’t call me Shirley.)

      • sabresoftware
        April 17, 2019

        Or it could be 7 more if you believe the premise in Carry On Henry (1971)!

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