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Lucy Mangan ("Every little helps", The Guardian, 9/13/2008), is the troubled child of a mixed marriage:

As a family, we have few abstract points of contention. Generally, we like to keep arguments specific and concrete – who ate the last peppermint cream, who lost the door keys, who killed Grandma, that kind of thing. But let a grammatical solecism rear its ugly head and the dinner table is awash with bloodlust. My mother, as you might expect from a woman who used to break my fingers for putting our beige napkins down "the wrong way", believes that the rules of grammar are semi-divine and wholly immutable. A split infinitive, "different to" or "none are": these are the things that try her soul, at least if there aren't any inverted napkins around.

Dad, meanwhile, embraces "mistakes" as part of the natural evolution of language. Presented with an empurpled wife insisting that "to aggravate" means "to make worse", not "to annoy", he will proclaim that "effete" once meant "having given birth". Each seeks my support. Bending my head to my plate, I feel like the trembling victim of a soon-to-be-broken home.

Although my sympathies are generally with Lucy's dad, I'll venture to disagree with his (reported) take on effete.

Or at least to add to it. It's true that effete, as the OED explains, comes from Latin effetus "that has brought forth young, hence worn out by bearing, exhausted, from ex "out" + fetus "breeding". And it's also true that the sense "effeminate" is quite recent.

But according to the OED, the earliest meaning in English was not "having given birth", but rather "Of animals: That has ceased to bring forth offspring".  The progression was then "transf. Of material substances: That has lost its special quality or virtue; exhausted, worn out"; and then "Of strength, vital power: Spent, worn out"; and finally "fig. Of persons in an intellectual sense, of systems, etc.: That has exhausted its vigour and energy; incapable of efficient action. Also, of persons: weak, ineffectual; degenerate. More recently, effeminate".

The earliest OED citation that clearly means "effeminate" rather than "weak, ineffectual; degenerate" seems to be from 1981, though it's often hard to be sure in particular cases whether an insult to women and male homosexuals was intended or not. Thus a modern reader may well interpret effete in this sentence

1905 BARONESS ORCZY Scarlet Pimpernel (1906) xvi. 147 Those happy days of courtship, before he had become the lazy nincompoop, the effete fop, whose life seemed spent in card and supper rooms.

to mean "effeminate", though for Baroness Orczy it probably just meant "That has exhausted its vigour and energy; incapable of efficient action".

Presumably the change in this word's meaning from "exhausted and ineffectual" to "effeminate" — whether it's taken place over a century or over a few decades — is really a kind of imperceptible slow-motion malapropism, driven by the similarity in sound and the overlap in sense.


  1. parvomagnus said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    And "different to" predates "different from", yes? I will add that, for me, "effeminate" is already a good word for "effeminate", for what limited uses that sense might have, though of course I'd never correct anyone about it. I much prefer "effete" in the sense of "belated seedling of an effete aristocracy", though both senses imply a notion of propriety that I find rather humorous.

  2. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    I don't know where Mark Liberman gets "imperceptible" from as one of the meanings of "effete". I suspect a corruption somewhere. There's a relevant passage about "effete" in a 2002 Observer article, to be found online here: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/readerseditor/story/0,,841690,00.html

    Here it is:

    Sunday November 17, 2002

    Distinguished lexicographer Robert Burchfield, in The English Language (reissued this year) writes: 'It is best to assume at the outset that no single word in the language is a stable, unchanging and immutable legacy from the past, however fixed, dependable and definable it may seem at any given time.'

    Evelyn Waugh remarked in a letter in 1946: 'I looked up effete. It means primarily "having given birth". The dictionary is an endless source of surprise and pleasure.'

    Burchfield says the Latin effetus meant, by natural extension 'worn out by bearing, exhausted' and in the seventeenth century farmyard animals were spoken of as 'barren and effete'. It is a short step, he contends, from effeteness of animals to barrenness of intellect or resolve; to be incapable of efficient action – the modern meaning of effete.

    (The Observer's precis is perfectly fair, but abbreviated; for Burchfield's own words, see his book The English Language, 1985, pp. 113-114.)

  3. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    I don't know where Mark Liberman gets "imperceptible" from, as one of the senses of "effete". Robert Burchfield in The English Language (1985, pp. 113-114) writes interestingly of the the word's changes of meaning. One of his quotations is from Evelyn, who in a work published in 1664 wrote of the "imprison'd and Effoete Air, within the Green-house". I suspect Evelyn meant what we would now call "fetid" air.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    @Simon Cauchi: What I meant to write was "exhausted and ineffectual", and that's what I thought I had written even after I first read your comment.

    That's what I get for posting in a hurry while preparing a class.

    The "imperceptible" part comes later in the sentence, where I talk about the newer meaning as a sort of malapropism that is often imperceptible, since it largely overlaps in contexts of use with the traditional meaning. Apparently the two modifiers cross-activated enough for my fingers to anticipate "imperceptible" and type it where it didn't belong.

  5. James said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    I wrote a comment about 'effete' in particular maybe a month ago here, when there was some discussion over "incorrect word usage" and what distinguishes it from "different meaning in a subgroup". I mentioned there that I think the popular usage of 'effete' is vague and indeterminate and that people miscommunicate by its use. I've asked people, a number of times, what they think it means, and got several different answers: effeminate is one, but others say snobbish, ineffectual, elitist. I suppose it could be any vice traditionally associated with 'aristocracy'.

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