In a word: spavined

July 23, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively 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:


Human beings' long association with horses before the advent of the automobile has left numerous traces in the language, such as the dead metaphor free rein (commonly rendered as free reign by people ignorant of harness) for "autonomy." Last week, railing against the irritating frequency of iconic in journalism, I made use of another, suggesting that legendary "has gone spavined." 

A spavin (pronounced SPAV-un) is a swelling or tumor in a horse's hock produced by inflammation, causing the animal to go lame. The adjective has long since been pressed into metaphoric service to mean "lame," "halting," "maimed." In Byron's Vision of Judgement we find "Ere the spavin'd dactyls could be spurred / Into recitative." 

The word comes into English from the Old French espavain, the etymology of which the OED says is "of obscure origin," which is lexicographerese for "we haven't a clue." 

Example:  Charles Pierce, writing in Esquire in 2008 about Barack Obama's attitude toward "the country he so obviously wants to lead, which is not the country he talks about but the spavined America that actually exists."

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