Dot Wordsworth

Ob-scurity

Ob-scurity

The back-page notebook in the Times Literary Supplement the other week was pondering whether the word obnixely had ever really been used. It means ‘earnestly, strenuously’, but I can see that there is not much point using it if no one knows what it means.

The prefix ob- generates a goodly store of seldom used words: obacerate (‘to stop the mouth’); obcaecate (‘blind, uncomprehending’); obganiate (‘to be tediously repetitious’); obstupely (‘dully’) and the splendid obeliscolychny (‘lighthouse’). One such word never did exist: oblive was entered in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1902 as meaning ‘to forget’, but it was copied from a misreading of oblivious as oblyving by the 18th-century lexicographer Francis Grose.

As for obnixely, since it derives from Latin, there will be some who can work it out. Indeed this seems to explain why it was coined in the first place. The only quotation that the OED can muster for the word is from a letter to Sir Edward Dering in 1641: ‘Most humbly and most obnixely I must beseach both them and you.’ It seems to me that this is a mere copy or calque of a conventional late Latin phrase, often expressed as a doublet: ‘obnixe rogamus ac petimus’ — ‘earnestly ask and entreat’ etc. In 1641, gentlemen accustomed to writing to knights were likely to have come across such phrases. Nowadays people like me find them only because the internet finds them for me.

The internet version of the OED also allows one to see where the word fits in Oxford’s lovely Historical Thesaurus, published in 2009, which is a sort of index to words according to their meaning.

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