In a word: Contumely

October 31, 2011

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


Contumely — insolent or insulting language, contemptuous treatment, scornful rudeness — is typically heaped on its object's head. The word (pronounced con-TOO-muh-lee) comes from the Old French contumelie, and before that from the Latin contumelia, "abuse," "insult."

Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan: "And therefore the offence men take from contumely, in words or gesture, when they produce no other harm than the present grief of him that is reproached, hath been neglected in the laws of the Greeks, Romans, and other both ancient and modern Commonwealths; supposing the true cause of such grief to consist, not in the contumely (which takes no hold upon men conscious of their own virtue), but in the pusillanimity of him that is offended by it." That is, the object of the insult was thought to be more blameworthy than the author of the insult.

Example: You remember what Hamlet said: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ Th'opressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely. …"

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