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I came upon this curious word by chance in the following article:

"Know your English — What is the meaning of ‘ultracrepidarian’?", by S. Upendran, in The Hindu (9/2/13; updated 6/2/16)

First, let us deal with the pronunciation of the word. The first two syllables are pronounced like the word ‘ultra’, and the following ‘crep’ rhymes with ‘prep’ and ‘rep’. The ‘i’ is like the ‘i’ in ‘bit’, ‘hit’, and ‘sit’, and the ‘dar’ is pronounced like the word ‘dare’. The word is pronounced ‘ul-tra-krep-i-DARE-ien’ with the stress on the fifth syllable. An ultracrepidarian is someone who is in the habit of giving advice on matters he himself knows nothing about — like a politician! This Latin word literally means ‘beyond the shoe’.

*My ultracrepidarian uncle will be spending two weeks with us.

The story goes that when the Greek painter Apellis displayed his beautiful painting of Alexander the Great, a shoemaker pointed out that the sandals in the painting did not have the required number of loops. The artist thanked him, and immediately set about making the required changes. Once they had been carried out, the emboldened shoemaker began to comment on other aspects of the painting — the shape of Alexander's legs, his robes, etc.

The idea passed into modern European languages:

A related English proverb is "A cobbler should stick to his last". The Russian language commonly uses variants of the phrase "Суди, дружок, не свыше сапога" (Judge not, pal, above the boot), after Alexander Pushkin's poetic retelling of the legend. In Spanish speaking countries there's also a related proverb, "Zapatero, a tus zapatos" ("Shoemaker, [tend] to your shoes").

The English essayist William Hazlitt is the first to have used in print a disparaging adjective "Ultra-Crepidarian", as he wrote a ferocious letter to William Gifford, the editor of The Quarterly Review: "You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic". Occasionally the word ultracrepidarianism has been used later.

Karl Marx ridiculed the idea: “Ne sutor ultra crepidam” – this nec plus ultra of handicraft wisdom became sheer nonsense, from the moment the watchmaker Watt invented the steam-engine, the barber Arkwright the throstle, and the working-jeweller Fulton the steamship".


The story is from Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia [XXXV (Loeb IX, 323–325)], AD 77.

Somehow, "ultracrepidarianism" reminds me of "superciliousness", where the former is looking from the bottom up, and the latter is looking from the top down.  And both words remind me of this tour de force 60 second lecture by my colleague, Renata Holod, which is very hard to comprehend when spoken aloud (much easier to understand when written; I wonder what voice recognition software would do with it), but full of profound meaning:

Cultures of Seeing

Right to Sight, the Site of Sight, and the Rite of Sight (the original YouTube caption, "Site of Sight, Right of Sight, and Rite of Sight: Exploring the Cultures of Seeing", has it wrong)



The English word supercilious ultimately derives from the Latin word supercilium, "eyebrow." Supercilium came to mean "the eyebrow as used in frowning and expressing sternness, gravity, or haughtiness." From there it developed the senses "stern looks, severity, haughty demeanor, pride." The derived Latin adjective superciliōsus meant "full of stern or disapproving looks, censorious, haughty, disdainful," as it has since it entered English as supercilious in the 1500s. The super- in the Latin word supercilium means "above," and cilium was the Latin word for "eyelid." In many of the Romance languages, this word developed into the word for "eyelash." This development is probably reflected in the scientific use in English of the word cilium, whose plural is cilia. Cilia are the minute hairlike appendages of cells or unicellular organisms that move in unison in order to bring about the movement of the cell or of the surrounding medium.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.

supercilious (adj.)

1520s, "lofty with pride, haughtily contemptuous," from Latin superciliosus "haughty, arrogant," from supercilium "haughty demeanor, pride," literally "eyebrow" (via notion of raising the eyebrow to express haughtiness), from super "above" (see super-) + second element akin to cilium "eyelid," related to celare "to cover, hide," from PIE root *kel- (1) "to cover, conceal, save." Related: Superciliously; superciliousness.

Since cilium is more recent than supercilium, the former can be interpreted as a back-formation to the latter …. If indeed derived from the root *kel- 'to hide', we must still assume that a noun *kilium 'eyelid' existed, since the eyelid can 'hide' the eye, whereas the eyebrow does not have such a function. Thus, supercilium may originally have meant 'what is above the cilium'. [Michiel de Vaan, "Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages," Leiden, 2008]


[Thanks to Mao Sun]


  1. Matthew London said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 2:25 am

    Hi Victor,

    Of course this being Language Log, there must be a tea reference to go along with Ultracrepidarian…

    I present the most excellent blog of our Tea Friend David Campbell of Tillerman Tea: "The Ultracrepidarian’s Notebook"

  2. Stephen Plant said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 3:46 am

    “Somehow, 'ultracrepidarianism' reminds me of 'superciliousness', where the former is looking from the bottom up, and the latter is looking from the top down.”

    I suppose those suffering from Nobel disease could be both ultracrepidarian and supercilious. Must make for some interesting facial expressions.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 6:15 am

    First, let us deal with the pronunciation of the word. The first two syllables are pronounced like the word ‘ultra’, and the following ‘crep’ rhymes with ‘prep’ and ‘rep’. The ‘i’ is like the ‘i’ in ‘bit’, ‘hit’, and ‘sit’, and the ‘dar’ is pronounced like the word ‘dare’. The word is pronounced ‘ul-tra-krep-i-DARE-ien’ with the stress on the fifth syllable.

    I find this opening pretty striking, since everything including the stress placement is fully predictable just by looking at the word. There's nothing even minorly unusual about this pronunciation. Who's the audience? (Yes, I see that they're probably Indian.) What would they have expected the pronunciation to be?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 7:26 am

    Hi Matthew,

    Nice to know that you read Language Log, and thanks for telling me about David Campbell's fine blog.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 8:19 am

    The Hindu is an old (founded 1878), large circulation (1,415,792 daily copies), national English language newspaper headquartered in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, which we learned about yesterday in the comments to this post:

    "Radio Garden" (3/4/21)

    The languages of Chennai alone include Tamil (76.7%), Telugu (10.5%), Urdu (2.8%), Malayalam (2.2%), Hindi (2.1%), and others. (source)

    Outside of stereotypes, there is no single standard Indian English. Depending upon whether the speaker's native tongue belongs to Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Munda, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman, or some other family, and depending upon which language within those families, and upon which of the countless regional and local variants of those languages, English in India is pronounced in countless different ways.

    The situation is similar to that in China, where a Cantonese speaker of English and a Shandong speaker of English will pronounce it very differently. I have a fun game I like to play with my Chinese friends, in which I guess where they are from based on the way they pronounce English. I'm usually right, or close to right, and it always amazes my friends.

    As for linguistic variation in general, I find these remarks of ~flow, posted at 2:58 a.m. this morning, to be instructive:


    After reading the erudite B. E. Vidos' 1956 "Handbuch der romanischen Sprachwissenschaft" and a much smaller "Historische Neuenglische Laut- und Formenlehre" by Ekwall 1965 over lockdown my impression is more than ever that there are too many purely incidental and external factors are at play in the semantic and phonetic development of languages that cause the development of languages to become essentially unpredictable, not unlike the weather and for similar systematic (mathematical) reasons. (This same observation also applies to English orthography, by the way, much more so than to the orthographies of other languages that value regularity higher than observance of popular vote on a per-word basis.) I only mention that because seeing as after a century of modern efforts to reconstruct the sounds of old Chinese the reconstructions differ so much, I must assume we know rather little for certain. Vidos goes as far as saying that there isn't much of a phonology to speak of when we go into the weeds [emphasis added by VHM, who likes that expression], i.e. the essentially unwritten dialects that differ from parish to parish. I think he does have a point there.

    [written as a comment to this post:

    "The Garden of Morning Calm" (3/4/21)]


  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    One online source credits William Hazlitt (1778-1830) with coining the word. It appears in a lengthy polemical rant by him published in 1819 as "A Letter to William Gifford, Esq." (Gifford, 1756-1826, is said by wikipedia to have been "an English critic, editor and poet, famous as a satirist and controversialist.") As typeset, the "letter" (available in its entirety in the google books corpus) goes on for 87 pages, with the relevant passage appearing on page 56, shortly after Hazlitt tells Gifford "You know nothing of Shakespear":

    "You, Sir, have no sympathy in common with Hamlet; nothing to make him seem ever 'present to your mind's eye;' no feeling to produce such an hallucination in your mind, nor to make you tolerate it in others. You are an Ultra-Crepidarian critic."

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 1:40 pm

    (I now see the Hazlitt point was given above, although my review of the scanned original publication online gives a different wording for the original sentence than that source.)

  8. Rodger C said,

    March 6, 2021 @ 9:09 am

    Surely the Greek painter's name is usually given as Apelles?

  9. DCA said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 8:20 pm

    The 20th-century mathematician Henry Thayer Davis, who at "different times in his life, … showed the prospects of becoming a classical scholar, a physician, and even a billiards player" wrote an autobiography with the title "Adventures of an Ultra-Crepidarian" (ref . p 181 of David Grier's book, "When Computers Were Human"). Sounds about right.

  10. Terpomo said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 12:47 pm

    "Supercilious" makes me think of when I first encountered in it, as a translation in the subtitles of a song of the Chinese expression 目空一切 mù​kōng​yī​qiè (shouldn't that be kòng?). Specifically this song:
    (Warning, it's somewhat lewd)

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