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Pavonine

This word has too little intrinsic character to convey the meanings that authors have attached to it that evoke the gaudily patterned, the iridescent or the ostentatious. All these senses are linked to its literal meaning: “like a peacock”.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on this import from Latin pavo, a peacock. The native English equivalent is peacocky, surely an equally poor word with which to communicate the flamboyant vanity for which it is most commonly employed.

Authors have described pavonine seas and deep-hued pavonine dusks, both reminiscent of the blue of the peacock’s head and neck. Others have conjured up a pavonine strut like a peacock in full display.

This isn’t to say that [Freddie] Mercury’s presence wasn’t absorbing. He was an enthralling performer. Here he was again in all his pavonine glory, a camped-up, balletic “macho man”, singing “I Want to Break Free”, wearing fake breasts.

The Independent, 17 Oct. 2012.

Pavonine turns up most frequently, which is to say not often, in the common names of some birds with peacockish plumage, including the pavonine cuckoo, the pavonine quetzal and the pavonine toucan. One rare linguistic relative is pavonise, to comport oneself like a peacock, to strut and display one’s imaginary plumage. Another of equal uncommonness is pavonious, to have eyespots like those on the tail of the peacock.

A compound that is even rarer appears in a story by Saki (HH Monro), in which a country house guest shoots a peacock without realising its value (“Some hostesses, of course, will forgive anything, even unto pavonicide”). Saki’s character asks of pavonicide, “is there such a word?” There is, since he used it, but unsurprisingly nobody else ever has.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Feb. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 February 2013.