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Pronounced /l(j)uːˈdɪbrɪəs/Help with IPA

In 1807, the American diplomat, politician and poet Joel Barlow published his epic, Columbiad, which was widely regarded as a pompous and grandiose vision of the New World (even he admitted that he was no genius as a versifier). A lesser criticism concerned the many words he coined.

The Edinburgh Review wrote that some “were as utterly foreign, as if they had been adopted from the Hebrew or Chinese” and that others had been contorted from existing English words. The review recorded multifluvian, vagrate, inhumanise, conglaciate, micidious, luxed, fulminent, utilise (which has since had some success) and many others. “His new words are not necessary,” commented Washington Irving, “and very uncouth, such as cosmogyre, cosmogyral, fiuvial, ludibrious, croupe, brume, gerb, colon [not in the anatomical or punctuation senses but meaning a colonist], coloniarch, numen, emban, contristed, asouth ...”

Irving was wrong about ludibrious, but it’s noteworthy that he believed it to be new. It had actually been in the language since about 1570 but had never been common.

During its history it had done an about-turn. It meant at first that the thing referred to was the subject of mockery, but Barlow used it — in the line, “Leaves to ludibrious winds the priceless page” — in its later sense of something that was itself scornful or mocking. It appeared a few times in later works before finally dying out.

“I wonder where that Paddy of mine has spirited himself away to,” said I, in a tone meant to be ludibrious, but really on the other hand somewhat lugubrious instead.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Aug. 1863.

Both senses are in its Latin source, ludibrium, which could mean playful behaviour or joking but also mockery or derision. It derives from ludere, to play.

At one time we had other words from the same source — and it’s still present in disguise in words such as collude, delude and prelude — but the one that we’re most likely to recognise today is ludicrous, which began with the idea of lightheartedness or playfulness but moved to our sense today of something ridiculous, which gives rise to laughter that’s derisive rather than jolly.

Page created 26 May 2012

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Last modified: 26 May 2012.