Monday, May 12, 2008

A word for the supercilious -- to deign

If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, we have at least as grand a pantheon of words and expressions describing snobbery, putting on airs, and being
1) too big for one's britches,
2) too cool for school,
3) haughty,
4) surly,
5) arrogant, and
6) supercilious.
That last word refers to that which is above (super) the eyelashes (cilia) --namely, the eyebrows, or more specifically the raised variety embodied by The New Yorker's longtime mascot, Eustace Tilly, at right.

Similarly, when the prideful alight from their high horses, our language is ready to spring like a trap. The word "condescend" in Latin means to descend to a less formal level. In colonial times it meant "to waive the privileges of rank" in a positive way. You can read descriptions of George Washington generously condescending to his soldiers. But today the main definition is "to assume an air of superiority."

The SAT Question of the Day below turns on condescend's French cousin, to deign, always said with a sneer and meaning "to condescend reluctantly with a strong sense of the affront to one's superiority." (This comes from the Middle English deignen, the Old French deignier, and the Latin dignare, all meaning "worthy.")

The new faculty member was a world-renowned scholar who, unfortunately, considered teaching undergraduates ------- him; he rarely ------- to speak to students who were not taking advanced post-graduate courses.

a) within . . . presumed
b) above . . . needed
c) beneath . . . deigned
d) beyond . . . neglected
e) like . . prepared

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