I was reading Adam Leith Gollner’s GQ article “The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Jailbreak Artist” (and if you like jailbreak stories, this one’s a corker) when the following passage leaped out at me:

Investigators will later note that the prison staff seem completely stupefied. The descriptor employed by the ministry of justice in its subsequent audit is sidération, an archaic word that refers to the state of being “planet-struck.”

The noun may be archaic (it’s only in my very largest French-English dictionary, the Larousse Unabridged), but the related sidérer ‘to dumbfound, flummox’ and sidérant, which the Larousse defines as ‘staggering, amazing, stunning’ (“C’est sidérant! “it’s mind-blowing!”), are not; the Trésor de la langue française informatisé gives the etymology as “Empr. au lat.sideratio « action funeste des astres; insolation ».”

So much for French, but when I said sidération was in the big Larousse, I didn’t give the English equivalent provided there, which is sideration. I had been unaware of the existence of this word, for which the OED has the following entry (updated March 2016):

Pronunciation: Brit. /sʌɪdəˈreɪʃn/, U.S. /ˌsaɪdərˈeɪʃ(ə)n/
Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: French syderation; Latin sīderātiōn-, sīderātiō.
Etymology: < (i) Middle French syderation, French sidération necrosis, gangrene (1549), influence on a person’s life or mental state attributed to the stars and planets (1560), illness attributed to the influence of the stars and planets (1611 in Cotgrave), and its etymon (ii) classical Latin sīderātiōn-, sīderātiō action of causing plants to wither or of affecting humans and animals with paralysis, attributed to the influence of the stars and planets, in post-classical Latin also a variety of erysipelas (1788 or earlier) < sīderāt-, past participial stem of sīderārī (see siderate v.) + -iō -ion suffix¹.

1. An aspect or configuration of the stars and planets; a (malign) influence or effect attributed to this. Obsolete. rare. […]
1590 J. Hammon tr. B. Aneau Αλεκτορ 89 A most fine flaming Carbuncle..whose nature by composition and casting in worke vnder this Syderation [Fr. syderation] is such, that if I be prisoner or locked in anie straight, it will become pale.

2. Medicine.
a. The fact or condition of being suddenly struck down by death, paralysis, insensibility, etc.; an instance of this. Obsolete.
1612 J. Cotta Short Discouerie Dangers Ignorant Practisers Physicke i. vii. 59 The sicke are also sodainly taken..with a senseless trance and generall astonishment or sideration.
1829 J. Copland in G. J. M. de Lys tr. A. Richerand Elements Physiol. (ed. 2) 379 (note) The word syderation appears to me to express very forcibly that sudden and deep stupor which overwhelms patients seized with the plague of the East.
1854 Half-yearly Abstr. Med. Sci. 19 116 The cessation of the action of the heart is sometimes so sudden, that it constitutes a true sideration.

b. The shrivelling or destruction of a part or tissue of the body; mortification, necrosis. Now rare. […]
1625 in State Papers Domestic Charles I (P.R.O.: SP 16/3/37i) f. 54 In the braine wee found the whole, & sole cause of his sicknes namely a great admirable blacknes & syderation in the outside of the braine.
2007 D. E. Panfilov Aesthetic Surg. Facial Mosaic xlv. 330/1 The nerve sideration is the result of the tissue distension all around the infraorbital foramen.

c. spec. Erysipelas of the face or scalp. Cf. blast n.1 6d. Obsolete. rare.

3. Sudden withering or shrivelling of a plant or its fruit. Cf. blasting n. 3a. Obsolete.
1623 H. Cockeram Eng. Dict. ii. A iv b A Blasting thereof, Stellation, Syderation.
1721 N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. Sideration, the Blasting of Trees or Plants, with an Eastern Wind or with excessive Heat and Drought.

It’s interesting that the Larousse defines the French noun only with this obsolete and medical English one, and the OED senses are the only ones given by the Trésor — does this mean that the Ministère de la Justice misused the word, assuming it had the ‘flummoxing’ sense of the verb? And if you’re curious about flummox, M-W says:

No one is completely sure where the word flummox comes from, but we do know that its first known use is found in Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel The Pickwick Papers and that it had become quite common in both British and American English by the end of the 19th century. One theory expressed by some etymologists is that it was influenced by “flummock,” a word of English dialectical origin used to refer to a clumsy person. This “flummock” may also be the source of the word lummox, which also means “a clumsy person.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    This is pretty siderating.

  2. I’ve never heard of sideration, but sidereal is pretty common – although not so common that I didn’t think it was pronounced side real until my early 20s.

  3. Os Siderais is a longtime ornament of the brazilian street brass scene; their first trip to the states, they never did manage to explain their name in a way i could follow. here is a WFMU interview with them from that visit.

  4. Ben Tolley says

    I’m not a native speaker, but I don’t think sidération in it’s dumbfounding sense is particularly archaic. It was certainly familiar to me, though I had no idea about the medical sense. It is in my Petit Larousse, but only with the medical definition. It has both for sidérer. I’d noticed the similarity to sidereal and wondered about it, but never got around to looking it up, so thank you!

  5. So, sideration to starstruck is like lunacy to moonstruck.

  6. Sidération is included in Le Petit Robert, which isn’t an especially big dictionary. It is not tagged as archaic, but the meaning “Stupéfaction” is tagged COUR., i.e. courant, “current”.

  7. Ah, that’s very helpful — thanks!

  8. I knew sideration only in the “sudden withering or shrivelling of a plant or its fruit” sense. It’s not part of my regular vocabulary, although I would not have thought it was obsolete. I probably picked it up from my mother when she was studying for a second undergraduate degree in horticulture at Michigan State. The similar sense of blasting seems much less clinical, more poetic. Tolkien, not surprisingly, uses blasted in a similar sense:

    Though all the old adornments were long mouldered or destroyed, and though all was befouled and blasted with the comings and goings of the monster, Thorin knew every passage and every turn.

    Bloix’s sidereal, on the other hand, comes up all the time in my work, where the Earth’s rotation period—the sidereal day—is a much more fundamental quantity than the twenty-four-hour solar day.

  9. Rodger C says

    I’ve long wondered whether this word could be connected with Greek sideros ‘iron,’ the connection presumably being meteors. Online discussions of the matter are both confusing and confused.

  10. It’s apparently unclear whether consider and desire are connected to the stars.

  11. Paul Atlan says

    While “sidérer” (“je suis sidéré”) is still in common usage, my guess is that it is slowly disconnecting from its literary roots. The only usage I can think of today is to exaggeratedly express surprise with a (mock) high-brow undertone. And my teenage kids would not use it.
    As for “sidération” in the sense employed by the report, it is definitely understood as a medical term. In a literary piece it would be very old-fashioned.

  12. Thanks, that’s what I wanted to know.

  13. I spotted a weird use of sidereal this week. I was reading some pulp (The Hunter Out of Time by Gardner F. Fox; available here, in a paperback edition featuring a totally inapt Frazetta sketch of what looks like Kothar* on page 3) as I tried to get to sleep, I found the author used “sidereal space” to refer to a bizarre parallel dimension through which an alien space-time invasion arrives. Fox also uses a bunch of made-up terms for the silly time travel mechanisms in the story, which made it all the odder that he chose to use a normal word in this case, and in a rather weird fashion. The OED gives only the means of sidereal that I was familiar with, which fall into two groups. Some (including the oldest) relate to stars or starlight directly. The others are of the type I mentioned above: space or time measurements made in reference to the distant (“fixed”) stars of the firmament. But there is no indication that Fox’s sidereal space contains any stars at all; it’s a different kind of dimension, through which the enemy aliens eventually figure out how to project themselves.

    * To the extent that a portrait can ever really look like Fox’s Kothar, barbarian swordsman, as opposed to just looking like Conan the barbarian.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Probably he saw the word once much earlier, couldn’t remember where he had got it from and eventualy assumed he must have made it up.

  15. That would seem to make it like gyre for Lewis Carroll.

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