Ombra mai foosball?

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering what the history of the word “adumbrate” is. It’s such an interesting word that I was hoping that it would have a good history too. — Talia.

Well, that’s certainly understandable. It’s like looking forward to the first Thanksgiving get-together after your marriage and hoping your new in-laws don’t eat with their feet. A cool word should have cool ancestors, or at least a nifty story about how its parents met (“I was raised Middle English, but one day a charming Romany verb came into our tavern…”). But sometimes knowing a word’s history can dim one’s enjoyment. “Nice,” for instance, is a “nice” word meaning “pleasant or agreeable.” Too bad it originally meant “stupid” (from the Latin “nescius,” not knowing), eh? And if I say that I’m “sanguine” about my favorite team’s prospects for the next season, I mean I’m cheerful and optimistic, which is quite a departure from the one of the word’s meanings in the 18th century, “causing or delighting in bloodshed.”

In the case of “adumbrate,” we have a lexical history that progresses from the literal to figurative uses, as many words do, and fortunately lacks any evidence of either idiocy or homicidal fury in its past. Today we use “adumbrate” most often to mean “to sketch out, to outline (or perceive) the general contours of a thing,” as a presidential candidate might “adumbrate” his or her proposed health care programs in a debate, or a social critic might warn of possible threats in the future (“It is not impossible to adumbrate the general nature of the catastrophe which threatens mankind if war-making goes on,” H.G. Wells, 1919). “Adumbrate” can also be used to mean “to foreshadow, to foretell, to predict in a vague way,” as competition between nations over scarce resources often “adumbrates” an eventual war. Somewhat paradoxically, “adumbrate” can also mean “to overshadow, to obscure or hide,” as one sibling’s financial success might “adumbrate” the accomplishments of another.

The key to the history of “adumbrate” is the Latin “umbra,” which means “shadow” (and also underlies “umbrella,” literally meaning “little shadow”). Coupling “umbra” with the preposition “ad” (meaning “to”) gave us “adumbrare,” which meant “to give shade to,” specifically in the sense of adding shading to a artist’s sketch in order to give some indication of the ultimate product. When “adumbrate” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it carried this meaning of “fill out,” but soon came to mean simply “faintly sketch.” This meaning gave us the figurative “sketch out or predict in general terms” sense we use today. The “foretell” sense of “adumbrate,” like the word “foreshadow” itself, invokes the image of future events casting shadows back into the current day. The “obscure or hide” usage rests on the metaphor of something casting a dark shadow over another thing.

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