Monday, July 21, 2008

Overweening -- a word for bullies

Here is a sentence from a David Brooks column in The New York Times:
"Normal, nonideological people are less concerned about the threat to their freedom from an overweening state than from the threats posed by these amorphous yet pervasive phenomena."

Don't worry, the rest of the column was even more difficult to follow. But you gotta love the word "overweening."

overweening adj. arrogant, presumptuous.

A wonderful-sounding word, from the Middle English over + wenen, where wenen means to love or charm -- in other words someone who loves or charms too much.
I always imagined "overweening" had to do with the word "wean," from the Old English word for "accustom," meaning to gradually detach a newborn from nursing, or some other dependence. But that's not the case.

"Overweening" seems often to be used with the word "ambition," as it was in a skit in Good Evening, the follow-up to the 1960s British satire revue Beyond the Fringe, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
In the skit, a school headmaster catches a boy named Rawlings with stolen gym slippers in his locker.
"I wanted the gym slippers and I took them," explains Rawlings.
"You wanted the gym slippers, and you took them," echoes the headmaster. "Good thinking. What kind of a world would it be, Rawlings, if everyone simply took what they wanted."
"It would be ghastly, sir."
"It would be ghastly, quite correct, Rawlings. So perhaps you fancy yourself a latter-day Hitler, annexing whatever you choose. Today, gym shoes, tomorrow, the world. Well, Rawlings, such overweening ambition has no place in this school. In me you will find no Chamberlain, no policy of appeasement. In me you will find a Churchill. I will fight you on the beaches, Rawlings. I will fight your doodle-bugs in the air....."

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