In a word: subfusc

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


Granted, it's mainly British, but it has it uses. 

Subfusc (pronounced sub-FUSK or SUB-fusk, and you're probably not going to use it in speech anyhow) started out meaning "dull in color,"  "dark," or "dusky." But "dull in color" suggested metaphoric possibilities, and in time subfusc was seen to have literary possibilities, standing in for "gloomy" and "somber."  

The word also took on a specialized meaning at the British universities that go in for gowns, subfusc being the dark formal clothing students wear for their examinations. 

I am not making this up, you know. From a 2007 article in the Times Higher Education Supplement: "A spokeswoman for the university [Oxford] said students taking degree courses still had to wear gowns and subfusc."

The word was shanghaied into English from the Latin subfuscus, sub meaning "somewhat" and fuscus meaning "dark brown."

Example: From a 2010 article in Britain's Spectator: "We were in a bleak, subfusc East London world of poverty, crime, stunted ambition and rather good rock music."

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