Source: Oxford Dictionaries
For though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to every body.
– Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)
Today’s vocabulary word is actually overdue to appear in my Word of the Week segment. It was first brought to my attention by Mike from M.C. Tuggle, Writer, but I was only reminded of it recently after I started reading Pride and Prejudice. The above excerpt, part of a description of the Bennets’ good friend Sir William Lucas, is a good example of an unfamiliar word being at least partially clarified in context. Despite being a successful businessman, Sir William does not appear to consider himself above his company and holds a reputation as a friendly and attentive gentleman. This makes sense, of course: the Bennets would hardly agree to maintaining a friendship with a “supercilious” neighbor!
A “supercilious” person is someone who acts like they consider themselves superior to the people around them. The word arose in the early 16th century and comes from the Latin adjective superciliosus, meaning “haughty” or “disdainful”. This adjective derives from the noun supercilium, which means “eyebrow”.
Hearing the word “supercilious” for the first time, some might jump to the image of someone acting “super silly” (or maybe that was just me). Ironically, it means almost the opposite, since an overly arrogant person can only mean “serious business”. Though the use of this word may have declined significantly since the 19th century, I would still use it occasionally as a poetic alternative to common words like “arrogant” and “conceited”. If you write haughty characters who often look down on others, “supercilious” may be the perfect adjective to add to your stories!
What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?