I was out for brunch with a couple of friends and their young daughter today. At the daughter’s request, some syrup was poured on the little pieces of toast she had cut. Several minutes later, she noticed that the syrup seemed no longer to be on the plate. Her mother explained that it had soaked into the toast. I added that it was syrup-titious.

Har, har, har. Of course surreptitious is really something that requires conscious agency of the actor – it refers to an undertaking, specifically one that the undertaker hopes will be overlooked. It is not typically thought of as pertaining to syrup dishes, the echoes notwithstanding; it is, on the other hand, easily associated with susurrus and slurpy whispering – sshhh! one must preserve the reputation!

It’s not a matter of being superstitious; this word has a history of real misrepresentation – at first not simply a sly sneakiness (as is the more common meaning now), but deliberate concealment of facts with an aim to obtaining something, for instance a dispensation or ordination. It is derived from subreption, which refers to fudging facts by leaving things unsaid; it is a partner to obreption, which is saying things that are overtly false.

Ah, but this is a double-tongued word if ever there was one. It starts with su but by the end has turned it around to us; in between you have the rr tracks and a tiny-voiced titi to try and keep everything small. But keep your eye on those tracks: you noticed, didn’t you, that surreptitious comes from subreption? Indeed, there is an in-between form, subreptitious.

So what happened? Did the b just not want to be obstreperous? Well, it was a matter of assimilation. But through that going with the flow and taking on a resemblance, it came to dissemble. Tell me: what does sur mean? You probably think “on” or “over”, as in French. Actually, in Latin, that would be super. But sub means “under”, as I imagine you know. So the “under” passes under, and lets what goes over be taken for “over”.

Taken for it? Those who take it will be taken, as will what there is to take from them. The reption that goes with the sub is no mere subtle insurrection; its reptilian form hides a raptor – rapere, “seize, snatch, take”. And so in the subtle slide of the surreptitious you may see that you have been overtaken by the undertaker. But it goes both ways – your own surreptitious activities may land you in a sticky situation, and then you’re toast.

2 responses to “surreptitious

  1. My wife and I have an ongoing disagreement about the pronunciation of syrup. I pronounce the first syllable “see”, so see-rəp (not unlike serum), while she pronounces it srr-əp, as in the beginning of surreptitious. (I doubt I’ve represented the pronunciations very well, but hopefully well enough for this purpose.)

    I’m assuming from this post that you pronounce it as she does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s