Review: The Word Detective by John Simpson

I’ve often been asked, “You’re the kind of person who likes to read the dictionary, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not just someone who enjoys reading the dictionary. I’m also someone who takes great pleasure in reading books about the dictionary. In this case, it’s John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, 2016).

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The many folds of “complicit”

After Ivanka Trump told CBS that “I don’t know what it means to be complicit,” Merriam-Webster helped her out with its definition: “Helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.” The dictionary, whose lexicographical sick burns have been lighting up Twitter, observed that complicit also trended back in March, used by Saturday Night Live as the name of a perfume in parody of the president’s daughter.

In its look at complicit, Merriam-Webster noted that the word, which it first attests in 1856, is likely a back-formation of complicity, notoriously defined in the late 17th-century as “a consenting or partnership in evil.” But what are the deeper roots of complicity? Let’s unfold them.

The “twists” and “turns” of fate? (Pixabay)

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Some things just don’t change. Today’s presidential candidates would fit right into Ancient Rome – both in name and action. See, the etymology of candidate turns out to be quite illuminating.

Have trouble tying a Double Windsor? Try a toga. “Cicero Denounces Cataline,” fresco,  Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888. Image from Wikimedia Commons and inspired by Mary Beard’s SPQR.    


The Oxford English Dictionary first cites candidate in 1609, where it appears in the second edition of Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall: “Candidate, a suiter for, or one elect for a place.”

Scholars consider Cawdrey’s work, a list of “hard words” borrowed into English, especially from Latin and Greek, the first English-language dictionary. English previously had bilingual dictionaries (e.g., Latin-English); general-purpose dictionaries, famously Samuel Johnson’s in the 18th century, followed later.

Now, with candidate, English is wearing a Latin word, candidātus,  which literally means “wearing white.” See, in ancient Rome, a candidate – called a candidātus – wore a white toga. In her engrossing new work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard explains:

Everyday Roman clothing – tunics, cloaks, and even occasionally trousers – was much more varied and colourful…Togas, however, were the formal, national dress: Romans could define themselves as the gens togata, ‘the race that wears the toga’, while some contemporary outsiders occasionally laughed at this strange, cumbersome garment. And togas were white, with the addition of a purple border for anyone who held public office. In fact, the modern word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means ‘whitened’ and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns, to impress voters. In a world where status needed to be on show, the niceties of dress went even further: there was a also a broad purple stripe on senators’ tunics, worn beneath the toga, and a slightly narrower one if you were the next rank down in Roman society, an ‘equestrian’ or ‘knight’, and special shoes for both ranks.

And you thought flag pins were ostentatious.

Many argue that the whiteness of the robes emphasize the candidates’ purity of character, but I think it’s more about the optics. Some thing just don’t change.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary sheds yet more light on candidātus:

Officially named petitor (his rivals were therefore styled competitores), he was called candidatus because he wore a whitened toga when greeting electors in the forum. A slave (nomenclator) reminded him of the names of the electors, and he had a crowd of partisans (sectatores) from the plebs including his own freedman and other clients, whose numbers were taken as an index of his likely success…In the late republic these activities frequently began a full year before the election…

Some things really just don’t change. Except for “he” and “his,” fortunately.

Underneath candidate’s folds

The root verb behind candidātus is candere, “to be shining white.” (With the exception of Ben Carson, you might say this verb also describes the field of candidates quite well.) The verb also produced candidus, which variously meant “white,” “bright,” “clear,” “happy,” and, anticipating English’s own candid, “frank.”

Candid is also cited in English in the early  1600s, its modern sense of “straight-forward” emerging by the end of the century. This connection between candidate and candid, of course, creates for some delicious ironies on the campaign trail. Candid camera comes surprisingly early, recorded in 1929.

Other cognates of candidate include: candlecandelabra, and chandelierincandescentincendiary, and incense. Candere could also mean “to burn white,” ultimately explaining its connection to incense and incendiary – which we can apply to that one candidate who’s taken the traditional toga…and set it on fire.

m ∫ r ∫