Dot Wordsworth

The appeal of apricity

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‘She’ll be telling us next how lovely the word petrichor is,’ replied my husband. I had told him that the redoubtable word-collector Susie Dent had said: ‘Probably my favourite winter-word of all, apricity, is the warmth of the sun on a chilly day.’ She has been saying this every winter for years, and why not?

But I agree with my husband that petrichor is overdone. It was invented in 1964 by two contributors to the science journal Nature, and signifies the smell from rain falling on dry ground. The trouble is that petr– reminds me of petrol, and ichor, the ethereal fluid supposed to flow in the veins of the gods, also means acrid discharge issuing from certain wounds.

As for apricity, the single example of its use recorded by the 20-volume OED was in the English Dictionarie by Henry Cockeram (1623). He defined it as ‘The warmenes of the Sunne in Winter.’  He spelt it apricitie and the OED, I think, normalised the form as a headword to apricity. (When considering such words derived from the Latin verb apricari, ‘to bask in the sun’, apricot is a false friend, as I wrote here in 2006.)

Perhaps the clever men at Oxford might since have found other early examples of apricity, for there is a later 17th-century example of apricate. John Aubrey sent material for his Brief Life of Sir Thomas More to his friend John Ray. Aubrey wrote: ‘His lordship was wont to recreate himself in this place, to apricate and contemplate, with his little dog with him.’ Ray wrote back that apricate exemplified what Caesar said: ‘verbum insolens tanquam scopulum fugiendum est’ – an unfamiliar word is to be avoided like a rock in the sea. The Latin advice had been quoted by Erasmus, and by Rabelais of all people. I like unusual words, as Aubrey did and his contemporary Sir Thomas Browne, and 19th-century magpies like Thomas De Quincey.

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