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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: saturnine

The Baltimore Sun

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


Though discarded by modern science, pagan religion and astrology survive in the language. The Roman god Saturn gave his name to the Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival of partying and gift-giving that Christianity appropriated for Christmas, to Saturday, and to the name of our solar system’s sixth planet.

It was believed that people born under the sign of Saturn would be saturnine (pronounced SAT-ir-nine), possessed of a variety of qualities: gloomy and morose, sullen and humorless, slow and sluggish, or swarthy, dark-complexioned.

Saturnine remarks are sardonic.

Example: Henry Allen, writing in The Washington Post in 1991: “Georgia O’Keefe is a major figure and inspiration — here she is with that saturnine and angry little curl in her mouth, and a beauty that seems to have a physical heft of its own in Stieglitz’s photographs.”

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