In a word: Jejune

November 21, 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:


Much as we might like to think of words as stable things with stable meanings, they slip and slide all over the place, and it can be maddening to attempt to be precise with them.

Consider jejune (pronounced juh-JOON), which comes to us from the Latin jejunus, meaning "fasting," "without food," "barren." As it came to be naturalized into English, it meant "dull," "uninteresting," "dry," "insipid," "trite," "meager." The sense from the Latin original was "not intellectually nourishing."

But over time it came to develop an additional sense of "naive," "simplistic," "superficial," "amateurish," "callow," perhaps from an association with the sound of the French jeune, "young," or the English juvenile. The earlier meaning occurs more frequently in British writing, the newer sense more frequently in American English.

The problem, then, is to determine what the writer is intending — is he saying that an article and its author are merely dull, or does he mean childish? It can be frustratingly difficult to figure out in context. This is one of those use-at-your-own-risk words.

Examples from the OED

From Blackstone's Commentaries: "He gives what seems … a very jejune and unsatisfactory reason."

In George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man: "His jejune credulity as to the absolute value of his concepts."

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