I ran across the little-used verb contemn “To regard or treat (a person or thing) with contempt” (little used, I presume, because it is fatally similar to the common condemn) and wondered about its etymology; fortunately the OED updated its entry last year:

Etymology: < (i) Anglo-Norman and Middle French contempner, Middle French contemner (French (now rare) contemner) to regard or treat (a person or thing) with contempt (c1350), to show contemptuous disregard for (an offer, order, request, etc.) (late 14th cent.), and its etymon (ii) classical Latin contempnere, contemnere to regard with contempt, to despise, to treat with contempt, to scorn, to disregard, to avoid < con- con- prefix + temnere to scorn, despise, of uncertain origin; perhaps < the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek τέμνειν to cut, Old Russian tjati to beat, Polish ciąć to cut, Lithuanian tinti to sharpen by hammering.

That “Old Russian tjati” is in Vasmer s.v. тять, which I’d never heard of:

тну, тять “бить”, стар.; укр. тну, тя́ти “резать, рубить, косить, бить, кусать”, блр. цяць, тну, др.-русск. тьну, тѧти “рубить, сечь, зарубить”, потѧти “убить” (тьметь у Мi. LР 1027 является опечаткой; см. Вондрак, Aksl. Gr. 365; Траутман, ВSW 324), словен. tẹ́ti, tnèm, др.-чеш. tieti, tnu, чеш. títi, tnu, слвц. t᾽аt᾽, польск. ciąć, tnę, в.-луж. ćeć, н.-луж. śěś. ‖ Праслав. *tьnǫ, *tęti родственно лит. tinù, tìnti “отбивать (косу)”, tìntuvaì мн. “инструмент для отбивания косы”, далее – греч. τέμνω “режу”, ион., дор. τάμνω, греч. τόμος м. “разрез, отрезок”, τομός “режущий”, ирл. tamnaim “уродую”, возм., также лат. aestimō “ценю” от *ais-temos “разрезающий слиток меди”, но едва ли лат. temnō, -еrе “презирать, пренебрегать, хулить”, (см. Эбель, KSchl. Beitr. 1, 271; П. Шмидт, Kritik 138; Траутман, ВSW 324; Буга, РФВ 66, 250; Соссюр, Мél. Наvеt 468; Вальде–Гофм. 1, 20; Зубатый, AfslPh 16, 418). Др. ступень чередования представлена в н.-луж. tоn м., toń ж. “вырубка в лесу, лесосека”.

Interestingly, тну appears to be the only word in Russian that starts tn- (and, being extremely marginal, it’s not in most dictionaries). As for the English verb, I was struck by this OED citation:

2006 J. Carey What Good are Arts? vi. 193 In Austen’s world some people..truly are contemptible, and it is right to contemn them.

If you feel a strong need to use the verb, it’s an excellent idea to use it in close proximity to the more common contemptible (or, of course, the basic noun contempt); it’s easily understandable in that context, and might add to your reader’s vocabulary.


  1. Meanwhile the etymology of the Latin verbal root or roots in contumely and contumax remains, alas, uncertain, but perhaps tum-ē- ‘to be swollen’. De Vaan suggests that “Possibly, the prefix com- [of contumēlia] was added in analogy with contemnō ‘to scorn, despise’, which is semantically very close.”

  2. It’s one of those words I wish were more common so that one could use them and expect to be understood / not sound like a pretentious asshole. (“Verisimilar” is another.) A one-word equivalent for “treat with contempt” is a useful thing to have, and “despise”, which probably comes closest, isn’t quite the same.

    The “cut” etymology makes sense; Greek διασύρω literally means “tear up”, but is generally used to mean “criticize, light into”.

  3. A one-word equivalent for “treat with contempt” is a useful thing to have, and “despise”, which probably comes closest, isn’t quite the same.

    Yes, exactly; I too regret the forced retirement of this fine word.

  4. De Vaan on temn-ō (whence contemnō, pf. contempsī, ppp. contemptum):

    The compound contemnere is the older verb, from which temnere has been backformed more recently. The etymology is disputed: the meaning ‘scorn’ has probably developed from a more concrete meaning, for which two candidates have been advanced: PIE *stemb- ‘shake violently, pound’ (WH, EM, Szemerenyi 1995: 414; in fact, it is likely that this is a non-IE root, because of *-b-, because of the unexplained variants in Greek and because it has few reliable cognates outside Greek) and PIE *temh₁- ‘to cut’ (LIV, Sihler, Meiser). Semantically, both can be defended: ‘to shake’ or ‘crush’ > ‘despise’ for the former (cf. the shift in spernere from *‘to trample’ > ‘reject’), and ‘to cut’ > ‘cut off’ > ‘despise’ for the latter. Formally, the present -temnere would best match *temh₁-, of which Greek and Celtic show a nasal present *tm-n-h₁-, and because Latin lacks the initial s- of *stemb-. For the pf., Meiser assumes (influence of) a preform aor. *stemb-s-, but the -p- would automatically arise in a preform *kom-temsī, and the latter can simply be a Latin innovation on the basis of the present stem tem-. Note also that the oldest attestations are all of the compound verb: contempsī. Latin has made an s-pf. to all nasal presents with word-internal nasal (cf. Meiser 2003: 112-114), whence pr. temnō > pf. *tem-sī. The other presents in -nere (cernere, linere, spernere, sternere) synchronically show a perfect in -V̄vī.
    Bibl.: WH II: 657f, EM 680, Schrijver 1991: 407, Sihler 1995: 534, Meiser 2003: 113f, LIV *temh₁-contumāx

  5. I first came across it in the Battle Hymn of the Repblic, which is great for obscure words:

    I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel
    As you deal with my contemners so with you my grace shall deal

  6. I must confess I always assumed it was an old variant spelling of “condemn” a la show and shew.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I am intrigued to learn that “contemn” and various derivatives occur eleven times in the Old Testament, broadly defined (seven in the OT narrowly defined plus four in the so-called Apocrypha), but zero times in the New Testament.

  8. I learned It from Byron in my younger years:

    There is many a pang to pursue me:
    They may crush, but they shall not contemn…

    As for тять, it sounds new to me althought I may have come across it in the past.

  9. ciąć is alive and well in Polish, and still confusing the hell out of language learners without a background in Slavic linguistics. „Ona tnie” – she cuts, „ona ciała” – she cut. „tnący” – cutting (active participle) „cięty” – cut (passive participle). Even some Polish speakers seem to be under the impression the declension was formed from two seperate verb stems smushed together, but it makes a little more sense in Cyrillic.

  10. I always had the notion that it was supposed to be contemn and not condemn in the famous 4th stanza of Laurence Binyon’s “For The Fallen”, often recited, at least in the UK, during the Remembrance period:

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

    But Wikipedia says “It has also been suggested that the word “condemn” should be “contemn”. “Condemn” was used when the poem was first printed in The Times on 21 September 1914, and in the anthology The Winnowing Fan: Poems of the Great War in 1914 in which the poem was later published.”

  11. “The proud man’s contumely”: He’s puffing his chest out at me?

  12. Stephen Carlson says

    I know the word from Michael Goulder’s description of Austin Farrer: “Farrer contemned the footnote. He wrote with authority and not as the scribes, and the scribes did not appreciate this.”

  13. I wasn’t familiar with Austin Farrer, but Wikipedia says: “Apart from his biblical scholarship, which was considered maverick, Farrer’s work was mainly philosophical, though again he was out of the mainstream.” Sounds like just the kind of guy who would contemn footnotes.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    That Farrer wikibio is unusually well-written (or cut-and-pasted from better-than-average sources?), with such zingers as “His making short work of such an established hypothesis infuriated many scholars and may have contributed to his not being made Regius Professor of Divinity.” The article on the “Farrer hypothesis” you can click through to is also imho unusually well done, laying out his contrarian theory that what had become the conventional academic wisdom is an unnecessarily convoluted attempt to explain the situation based on one key presupposition that, if accepted, made it impossible for a simpler story to account for the evidence, but once you saw why the presupposition was not necessarily true, the virtues of a simpler story became evident.

  15. John Cowan says

    As you deal with my contemners so with you my grace shall deal

    The variant spellings contemner, -or are both in use (the French etymology suggests that the latter is a false latinization), The word is also the technical term for someone who has been held in contempt of court: on a magistrate judge’s blog (no longer extant) called The Law West of Ealing Broadway, he spoke of “my contemnors”.

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose you know, but it went on for another 5 years ( until the blogger’s death. His real name is announced in the last post.

  17. John Cowan says

    [saved too soon]

    Therefore, the use of this word, along with the much better known grapes of wrath and the later righteous sentence, is an implicature that God in the hymn is the God of Justice, who (as Blake has it) crushes sinners in his wine-press:

    But in the Wine-presses the human grapes sing not nor dance:
    They howl and writhe in shoals of torment, in fierce flames consuming,
    In chains of iron and in dungeons circled with ceaseless fires,
    In pits and dens and shades of death, in shapes of torment and woe:
    The plates and screws and racks and saws and cords and fires and cisterns
    The cruel joys of Luvah‘s Daughters, lacerating with knives
    And whips their victims, and the deadly sport of Luvah’s Sons.
    They dance around the dying and they drink the howl and groan,
    They catch the shrieks in cups of gold, they hand them to one another:
    These are the sports of love, and these the sweet delights of amorous play,
    Tears of the grape, the death sweat of the cluster, the last sigh
    Of the mild youth who listens to the luring songs of Luvah.

    Luvah is Blake’s symbolic image of love (including hate) and passion, one of the four Zoas into which Albion (Adam Kadmon) was divided at the Fall.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    I would be rather surprised if a respectable American 19th-century poetess like Mrs. Howe had had any acquaintance with these works of Blake, at least at the time she wrote the lines in question.

  19. Kate Bunting says

    No doubt she took the reference directly from the Bible. There are various allusions to a winepress in connection with God’s anger, e.g. Revelation 14:19 “And the angel thrust his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.”

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Farrer is indeed an engaging writer, whether you agree with him or not. “On dispensing with Q” is here:

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    That mischievous High Anglican E L Mascall was moved to verse by this:

    Here lies poor Streeter, stiff and stark,
    Whose corpse foul Farrer slew:
    For, though in life he made his Mark,
    In death he’s lost his Q.

    Let exorcists from far and wide
    Placate his troubled spook,
    Which else will range the Broad beside
    The shade of Proto-Luke.

    O base and disrespectful hand!
    O thrice unhallowed rites!
    To break such mossy coffins and
    To quench such ancient lights!

  22. the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek τέμνειν to cut,

    Contempt is often shown by cutting remarks, and/or cutting dead in the street, I note.

  23. A word well known to lovers of Elizabethan lute song, from John Dowland’s Flow My Tears, one of most famous songs of that time period:

    Harke you shadowes that in darcknesse dwell,
    Learne to contemne light,

  24. Thanks for reminding me of that! Here’s a nice performance (“contemne” at 2:57 and 3:41).

  25. Regarding Blake’s Luvah: Wikipedia tells me that “his Emanation (female counterpart) is Vala; his fallen form is Orc”. Which reminds me of Tolkein’s mythos, in which the Valar (singular: Vala) are angelic or divine beings, and orcs, of course, are degraded, evil ones.

  26. WikiP:Orcus, quoting a Tolkien letter to Gene Wolfe(!):

    Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus—Hell. But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here.

  27. Another example:
    Like as of old, when men grew bold
    Gods threatnings to contemn,
    (Who stopt their ear, and would not hear
    when mercy warned them?

    From The Day of Doom, “the longest poem of the colonial period”, a pompous, tedious accounting of Puritan Doomsday.

  28. January First-of-May says

    But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here.

    I wonder if he thought it was a bear. The description would fit, though I’m not sure what the state of the art in those etymologies looked like in 1966.
    (The meaning shift would have been exactly paralleled by rakshasa, though admittedly the latter probably happened in an area with fewer actual bears.)

  29. One would think that a linguistic point like that would have to be almost absurdly intricate to be “too involved” for a discussion between Tolkien and Wolfe.

    However, I suppose that Tolkien really meant that he did not feel like writing out the whole explanation in a letter.

  30. January First-of-May says

    However, I suppose that Tolkien really meant that he did not feel like writing out the whole explanation in a letter.

    That’s certainly how I interpreted it: “it’s complicated, and I don’t feel like writing it out here because if I did it would take up most of the letter”. (It’s a fairly short letter.)

    I wonder if Tolkien wrote out the explanation anywhere else

  31. Stu Clayton says

    Like as of old, when men grew bold
    Gods threatnings to contemn,
    (Who stopt their ear, and would not hear
    when mercy warned them?

    From The Day of Doom, “the longest poem of the colonial period”

    Amazing, that must be the origin of a little poem my father favored me with:

    # In days of old, when men were bold
    And women weren’t particular,
    They lined them up against a wall
    And f**cked them perpendicular #

    It certainly bears contemnplating.

  32. In days of old anthology.

  33. If you look up “In days of old, when men were bold” or “In days of old, when knights were bold” you’ll find a zillion or so verses about such worldly matters (and also poo). It’s a good point, though: do they all ultimately go back to parodies of this universally known and most parody-worthy poem?

  34. The genre was up and roaring in the early 20th century, but it seems to have all started with Arthur Sullivan’s (minus Gilbert, plus Grundy) 1892 opera, Haddon Hall: “In days of old, when men were bold, and the prize of the brave the fair, we danced and sang, till the rafters rang, and laughter was everywhere”.

    ed. Maybe even earlier: Edwin Thomas’s A Warrior Bold, early 1890s: “In days of old, when knights were bold, and barons held their sway, a warrior bold, with spurs of gold, sang merrily his way.” These rhymes are nothing to be proud of.

    Another correction: Grundy wrote the words, Sullivan the music.

  35. Grundy is the perfect name.

  36. Sullivan/Grundy, born on Monday….

    Ironically, I have found that the comic book character/Superman foe Solomon Grundy seems to be much more famous now than nursery rhyme that named the character.

  37. A Google search confirms that. And I learn from Wikipedia that he was created by Alfred Bester: “he first appeared in All-American Comics #61 (October 1944)”!

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