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In a word: Unctuous

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:

UNCTUOUS

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One of the joys of

Bleak House

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is Dickens's unctuous Mr. Chadband, introduced thus: "Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. … Mr. Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him and he wanted to grovel, is very much in a perspiration about the head, and never speaks without first putting up his great hand, as delivering a token to his hearers that he is going to edify them."

Even his speech is oily, given as he is to discoursing in rhetorical questions (and answering them): " 'My friends,' says he, 'what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?'"

The word

unctuous

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(pronounced UNK-choo-us) means oily or greasy, in the literal sense, excessively suave, given to excessive flattery, smugly earnest in the figurative sense. It comes from the medieval Latin

unctuosus

, ultimately from the Latin

unctus

, "anointing," and

unguere

, "to anoint."

Unction

and

unguent

rise from the same source.

Example:

Mary McCarthy, writing in "America the Beautiful" in 1947 for

Commentary

: "Congress — these, for the most part, illiterate hacks whose fancy vests are spotted with gravy and whose speeches, hypocritical, unctuous and slovenly, are spotted also with the gravy of political patronage."

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