Daily Archives: March 16, 2011


So, we have been addressing this question:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have so far tasted the first three; now it is time for effrontery. This is the longest of the list above (and in fact one is hard put to find a longer synonym; audacity and impertinence are other four-syllable words in the same set, but other rough synonyms include such as insolence, impudence, and cheek). It pushes forward in its heavy, soft petticoats, ff, and it has the force of a formal, uncommon, polysyllabic word, that forbidding soft stiffness, perhaps, of the schoolmistress or mother superior chastising one for effrontery (or mayhap it’s the sound of the impudent hussy as she goes about whatever it is for which she is chastisable).

And it’s very up-front: the front pushes forward, and, yes, it’s the same front as our word front – well, more accurately, it comes from the same source: Latin frons, meaning “forehead”. It has an overriding echo of affront – in fact, it’s misspelled as affrontery about one time in ten (if a Google poll is to be believed). But affront comes from ad frontem, “to the forehead” or “to the face”, referring to a slap, where as in effrontery in place of the ad is an ex, “from” or “out”.

So does effrontery mean “get outta my face”? Well, no; there is an ongoing argument about the exact sense, but it’s either “pushing the forehead forward” or, using the sense frons also has of “ability to blush”, it may be “unblushing”. I am more inclined to the latter, for what that’s worth; Oxford is too, which is worth a fair bit. Anyway, if it’s “unblushing” it’s rather akin to impudent, from Latin for “shameless”; either way, the forehead forward and the face unreddened, one displays a fair amount of cheek.

This word makes me think of the name Ephron, as in Nora and – perhaps especially – her sister Delia, the author of the pleasingly impertinent How to Eat Like a Child. Also Zac Efron. And, for that matter, Jean Effront, a noted enzymologist (8156–1931), born Isaac Effront. All these names (Jewish family names all) trace to a Biblical character, Ephron, who sold the patriarch Abraham a plot of land in which to bury his wife Sarah – a deal pressed with smoothness rather than effrontery.

The question that remains, in regard to the taste of this word, is whether it has any positive tone, as nerve and especially chutzpah do. I would have to say that it does not carry any particular sense of admiration; it may not be as harsh a put-down as gall (which empties a bladder on the person, whereas this one simply defaces), but it lacks a particular element of praise. Indeed, being the most technical-sounding and formal of the lot, it is the most neutrally toned. Inasmuch as one may speak in neutral tones of such a shameless infraction, of course (most likely a social infraction, incidentally).

Tomorrow we go to the wall with balls!