Tweeting through life.

Dear Word Detective: What is the root or origin of the word “desultory”? I searched your website for this word but nothing came up.– Matthew Chau.

Well, that’s because you hadn’t asked about it yet. But now you have, and future generations will have the answer at their fingertips and you to thank. Assuming they can read, of course. And have fingers, which may have atrophied, since all one needs for text-messaging are thumbs. We’re also assuming that my website will still exist and hasn’t been taken over by the evil Web Overlord Huffington, who probably will have transformed it into a Twitter feed pushing hot deals at Waffle House.

“Desultory” is an interesting word. In modern usage as an adjective, it means “skipping from one thing to another, uncertain, unsteady, wavering and lacking persistence” (“Persons of a light and desultory temper, that skip about, and are blown with every wind, as Grasshoppers are,” 1699). The “desultory” person is characterized by a rigorously un-rigorous, unmethodical approach to just about any task or activity (“Desultory reading is indeed very mischievous, by fostering habits of loose, discontinuous thought,” 1827). Not surprisingly, a hopscotch “desultory” approach rarely results in success in any task, making the word also a synonym for “disappointing” (“The temptation to desultory research must in every case be very great, and desultory research, however it may amuse or benefit the investigator, seldom adds much to the real stock of human knowledge,” 1886). Applied to a particular thing or event, “desultory” means “random” or “mediocre” (“The play was marred by Ms. Hilton’s desultory performance as Juliet”).

“Desultory” first appeared in print in English in the late 16th century with the same “hopping from thing to thing” meaning it has today (“The Crown, since the Conquest, never observed a regular, but an uncertain and desultory motion,” 1655). The root of “desultory” was the Latin adjective “desultorius,” an adjective based on “desultor,” meaning “a leaper,” from a combination of “de,” down, plus “salire,” meaning “to jump or leap.” That “salire” was an especially productive Latin verb, giving us such other English words as “insult” (literally “to leap at someone”), “salacious,” “saute” (via French, from the sense of ingredients being tossed about in the pan), “somersault” (via French again, from the Latin “to leap over”), “exalt,” “assault,” “resilient,” “salient” and others.

I said that the Latin noun “desultor,” the root of “desultory,” meant “leaper,” but that’s a bit like saying King Kong is a movie about a monkey. A “desultor” in the Roman circus (as held, for instance, at the Circus Maximus in Rome, where chariot races and other popular shows were presented) was an equestrian acrobat whose specialty was jumping from one horse to another (or standing astride two horses) while the creatures were in full gallop. This daredevil feat has been a frequent feature of circuses ever since, and the term “desultor,” meaning “circus horse-leaper,” while now labeled “rare” by the Oxford English Dictionary, was still in use as of the late 19th century (“Clowns and desultors in ragged jackets were hanging about,” 1880). As a metaphor for the kind of person who jumps from one task to another in mid-stream, the image of an acrobat hopping from one galloping horse to another is remarkably apt.

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