Friday, 8 July 2011

a life full of adumbration

Well, the title of this post is an exaggeration. My life isn't full of adumbration, but there have been two occurrences of it in twenty-four hours, and that's spooky.

Yesterday I was reading book called cabbages & kings; the origins of fruit and vegetables, by jonathan roberts. (The title page and cover used lower-case letters, so I thought I'd better do the same in quoting it.)

I read the following passage and stopped to try to understand it:
The evolutionary careers of fruit and vegetables can be adumbrated, in some cases, long before human history begins; of the avocado, for example, whose Persea genus is thought to have rafted across the Atlantic on North America when the supercontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana, broke up and drifted apart; or of the strawberry, herbaceous descendant of the shrubby, thuggish blackberry - consider the similar way in which their suckers arch over and root where they make contact with the earth.
adumbrated? What did that mean?

I was pleased to find that no one else in our word-loving family had ever heard it, but one bright spark suggested it must have something to do with umbra, shade.

The Macquarie dictionary says:
verb (t) (adumbrated, adumbrating) 1. to give a faint shadow or resemblance of; outline or shadow forth.
2. to foreshadow; prefigure.
3. to darken or conceal partially; overshadow. [Latin adumbrātus, past participle, shadowed]
–adumbration // (say aduhm'brayshuhn), noun
I was still not quite clear how to understand it in the sentence, but we decided to go with the second meaning.

And that was fine. A new word heard but not fully understood. I continued to read and enjoy this delightful book.

However, what do you know! Today the word from A Word A Day came into my email box and it was adumbrate. The theme this week is words that can seem confusing because they have seemingly contradictory meanings:
Sometimes people, even Supreme Court justices, turn to a dictionary to resolve disputes. They may believe language is something exact, well-defined, as if words were precision molded in a foundry under exact specifications.
But the truth is different. Words can be vague, they may have multiple shades of meanings, and even completely opposite senses. In my mother tongue, Hindi, for instance, the word "kal" can mean both "yesterday" and "tomorrow". Is that a problem? Not at all. Context brings clarity. I have never seen anyone become confused by the use of the word -- would this meeting take place tomorrow or do I need a time machine to go back to yesterday?

Sometimes, though, the contrary senses of a word can be confusing. When you table a proposal, your intention depends on what side of the pond you are on. In American English you put it on the back burner, while in British English you bring it forward.

This week we've picked five such words. Each of these words has meanings as different as black and white. Call them contranyms, heteronyms, janus words, two-faced, words with split personalities, or coin your own word!

So, here's what it said:

(a-DUM-brayt, AD-uhm-brayt)
verb tr.:
1. To foreshadow.
2. To give a rough outline or to disclose partially.
3. To overshadow or obscure.

From Latin umbra (shade, shadow), which also gave us the words umbrella, umbrage, and somber. Earliest documented use: 1599.

"Mr Cameron should adumbrate painful decisions; he should sketch out the principles that will inform them; but he should not be drawn into spelling out what exactly they will be."
Walter Bagehot; Coming Clean; The Economist (London, UK); Mar 26, 2009.

"To create her three-dimensional composition, Robin Osler variedly manipulated floor and ceiling planes so as to adumbrate virtual spaces."
Monica Geran; Shadow Play; Interior Design (New York); Apr 2000.

I don't believe I'll ever use this word in writing or speech. But who know?


Papillon Bleu said...

I cannot say how grateful I am that you have un-adumbrated my arthritis spelling question! ( giggles!)
In French I would have said " lever l'ombre" ( to lift the shadow= un-adumbrate).

parlance said...

Papillon Bleu, I felt a bit pushy to be telling you how to spell that word, so I'm glad you were not offended!