A range of book reviewers’ clichés was held up to mockery 60 years ago, in a letter by Jocelyn Brooke to The Spectator. Brooke (1908-66) was a strange man who thought he had found his vocation in the venereal disease branch of the Royal Army Medical Corps until he burst into authorship, publishing two books a year from 1949 to 1958.
One reviewers’ cliché he singled out was the use of the adjective jejune. Today it survives as a shy visitor to the journalistic bird table, of uncertain identity. In other words, many who use it don’t know what it means. In the 1950s, jejune was generally used to mean ‘thin’ or ‘unsatisfying’ in some way. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary supplies more senses for jejune than it does quotations illustrating them: ‘unsatisfying to the mind or soul; dull, flat, insipid, bald, dry, uninteresting; meagre, scanty, thin, poor; wanting in substance or solidity.’
The most recent example it gives is from Henry Hallam’s View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, published in 1818: ‘The chroniclers of those times are few and jejune.’ He meant they provide thin pickings. Then the OED says that this is ‘the prevailing sense’.
Prevailing when? The entry for the word carries a note: ‘This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1900).’ But the OED does find a quotation from 1982 illustrating a newer sense of ‘puerile, childish; naive’. The new confusion, it suggests, comes from the ‘mistaken belief that it is connected with Latin juvenis ‘young’ or French jeune ‘young’. This suspicion is supported by a common misspelling of the word as jejeune. The earliest example found of this catachrestic or erroneous sense is in Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1898), where he says that Major Sergius Saranoff — the epitome of a romantic hero — has a ‘jejune credulity as to the absolute value of his concepts’.
As Shaw should have known, jejune derives from the Latin jejunus ‘fasting’. Lent begins on Wednesday and writers might see if they can fast from the erroneous use of jejune at least until Easter — which, as it falls on 1 April, would be a suitable day to resume its foolish misuse.