The columnist Simon Hoggart was rather sniffy about jejune in his Diary column in the Guardian last Saturday. It seems that he’d been telephoned in some distress during the week by a playwright friend who had found that the Collins Shorter English Dictionary now gives “naive; unsophisticated” as its primary meaning.
Any fully paid-up member of the pedantic persuasion will by now have blenched or fainted or drawn in his or her breath sharply, according to taste, at this evidence that English is going to the dogs or that dictionaries are no longer to be relied on, or both. Those of us who watch the language for fun or profit are likely to take a more laid-back view.
Mr Hoggart’s friend (should he actually exist and not be a figment of Mr Hoggart’s fertile imagination) is sadly out of touch with developments, as the change actually goes back at least to the Third Edition of the big Collins English Dictionary of 1994 and its historical roots are a century old.
Jejune derives from the Latin word jejunus, “empty stomach; fasting”, that has also given us jejunum as the anatomical name for the small intestine (so called because it was said to be always empty at death, which I’ll leave you to think about). Via French intermediaries it’s also the origin of dinner, it seems from an unrecorded Vulgar Latin verb disjunare (from jejunus plus the negative prefix dis-) hence the meal at which one breaks one’s fast. The fact that etymologically dinner therefore means “breakfast” is just one of those oddities that happen as language evolves, and which should desensitise us to the awful fate which Simon Hoggart’s friend thinks has befallen jejune.
When jejune first appeared in English, in the seventeenth century, it had at first this literal meaning of fasting, though it became obsolete within a century. But almost immediately it took on a figurative sense of something meagre or unsatisfying, or of land that was poor or barren. (Such figurative senses had long before been attached to its Latin original.) It was also soon applied to stuff that was equally unsatisfying to the mind or soul: “dull, flat, insipid, bald, dry, uninteresting; meagre, scanty, thin, poor; wanting in substance or solidity” as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, trying to turn itself into a thesaurus. Mr Hoggart’s friend still believes this to be the main meaning, and I have to say that all my own dictionaries agree with him.
However, at about the end of last century, the figurative sense was taken a step further by adding the idea of something immature or callow, so causing dictionaries to begin to add a subsidiary sense of “puerile; childish; naive”. The first recorded instance in the OED is in George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man of 1898: “His jejune credulity as to the absolute value of his concepts”. Some writers have attempted to justify this shift through a confusion with the unrelated French word jeune, “youth”, though it might also have been a move from “insipid” towards “puerile”. For whatever reason this sense came into being, it is now firmly attached to the word. The evidence from sources such as the British National Corpus is that in recent years it has become the dominant one, mistaken or not. Collins is merely among the first to show this, but other dictionaries will no doubt follow as revised editions are prepared.
Despite the implied stamp of approval by such as Shaw, writers have been railing against what they see as this ignorant misuse of the word for many years. Kingsley Amis famously did a hatchet-job on it in an essay in The State of the Language in 1980, describing it as his “favourite solecism of all time”. But such counterblasts are Canute-like in their lack of effect. As Diana Treffry, the Editorial Director of Collins English Dictionaries, wrote to the paper in response to Simon Hoggart’s comments: “As much as we may regret the passing of particular meanings, none of us can hold back the changes in language, not even lexicographers”.
I have to say it’s a word that’s not in my working vocabulary, partly because — along with a lot of other writers — I have a perplexing amount of trouble spelling it (and pronouncing it, too). But I avoid it mainly because it’s far from common and because people differ in their views about what it means, an insuperable barrier to effective communication. At least, as the OED has shown, there are plenty of other words to choose from.