circumsult

We all know the result of an insult. If you jump at someone, you get push-back. Which, as it happens, is etymologically correct: the sult in both words comes from Latin saltare, ‘leap’. The re means ‘back’ (as in what springs back at you after you push); the in means ‘in’ or ‘into’ or ‘towards’ or ‘at’ – if you jump down someone’s throat, that’s covered etymologically by insult too, though in English idiom jumping down someone’s throat is usually going a little farther than just insulting them.

So what do we do if we want to diss someone without getting blowback? How do we cast shade without getting chopped down? We can dance around it. Or, more to the point, we can jump around.

Jump around? ‘Around’ in Latin is circum. So, clearly, the word for this is circumsult. Verb and noun, as with insult and result.

On Twitter, this can include what’s known as subtweeting: Implying someone else without naming them. (Some people – not to name anyone – are of the opinion that every tweet is a subtweet.) Not all subtweets are negative, of course! But also, we did this long before Twitter. You know, talking behind people’s backs – perhaps in a way that might get back to them – or even implying them in their presence. Sometimes it’s an attempt (perhaps) to avoid insult – “Oh dear, I guess I didn’t buy enough toilet paper” – and sometimes it’s more of a razor-sharp knife slipped between the back ribs – “I’m fascinated to think of what sorts of dietary misjudgements a person might make that would have them using the toilet several times a day. I think I’ll need to do a shopping trip before it’s safe for me to find out, though.” This latter is a technique used finely and at length by Harold Pinter in plays such as The Homecoming and The Birthday Party.

Circumsulting isn’t the same as beating around the bush; that’s more on the order of carpet-bombing the suburbs in hopes the city centre will surrender. “I was just wondering if… Do you go to the grocery store or drug store often? Or will you be going there soon? It might be a day or two before I can get there. They have a sale on toilet paper, I think, and it seems like… well, I can’t find any more rolls…” It’s practically daring the person to ask you to get to the point. But the point of circumsulting is precisely not to stick the point right in: rather, you just cut around. (There’s a Latin word that means ‘cut around’ but it’s used for something else. I trust you can figure out what.)

We do a lot of this. We always have. We should have always had a word for it. We might as well have had one. But it falls to me to make it so. Circumsult is it: the latest new old word.

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