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

In a word: sententious

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:


When T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock sees himself as a version of Shakespeare’s Polonius, “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” he illustrates what English has done to the original sense of sententious.

The word (pronounced sen-TEN-shus) originally meant “given to aphoristic expression, “ “expressing much in few words,” “pithy, terse.” Its Latin root, sententiosus, derives, as does sentence in Prufrock’s sense, from sententia, “maxim,” “opinion.”

But we quickly grow weary of virtue, and the modern sense of the word describes one who is “excessively moralizing,” “ponderously trite,” “given to moralizing in a pompous or affected manner”—in short, like Polonius.

Example: From Lewis H. Lapham in “Notebook,” Harper’s, March 2003: “And what did he learn, the professor, from poking around in Afghan tents and Balkan graves? If nothing else, how to write sententious and vacant prose, most of it indistinguishable from the ad copy for an Armani scarf or a Ferragamo shoe.”

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