This word sounds like an old piston engine that is giving you some trouble getting it started. Maybe it’s your lawnmower or chainsaw; more likely, given the sound, it’s your Harley-Davidson. “Recalcitrant. [pause] Recalcitrant. [pause] Recalcitrant recalci. trant.” “Aw, come on.”

Once you have the word going, though, it’s more like a printing press: “Recalcitranrecalcintrantrecalcitrantrecalcitrant.” Or perhaps like a step-dance performance, something involving a lot of dancers stomping in rhythm with big boots, their heels landing hard on the stressed syllables. Recalcitrant recalcitrant recalcitrant recalcitrant.

It’s a good word, isn’t it? Tetrasyllabic with antepenultimate stress, a fluid mix of voiceless stops and liquids plus a gliding sibilant and a nasal, all like various hard, padded, or lubricated parts of a machine, bound by a cycle of vowels like a four-stroke engine or a back-and-forth step: /i æ ɪ ʌ/ (if you have other versions of the vowels, adjust as needed; I’m going with the singing, shouting version, not the spelling-bee-pronouncer version). The word itself can run very nicely, though if articulation is any problem for you (as for example if you have had several too many drinks, or you are reading the news on the radio station I listen to every day), recalcitrant may kick back at you.

Whether it kicks you or you get your kicks from it, though, this word definitely has a kick. Take it apart and see what’s driving this machine: re, ‘back’; then calcitrant from calcitrans or calcitrare, all of which look like something to do with calculus or calculation or calcium – but something else is afoot. They trace back to calcem, inflected form of calx; you may recognize calx as meaning ‘pebble’ or ‘limestone’ and being the etymon of calculus and calculation and calcium, but this is the other calx, the one that means ‘heel’. (The two appear to be unrelated, etymologically – which is fine, because any time I’ve had a pebble by my heel I have not liked it.) Calcitrare means ‘kick’ and recalcitrant is made of bits that mean ‘kicking back’.

So, yes, something that is recalcitrant is, at root, something that kicks back at you – though not something that gives you kickbacks. I guess we could picture the heel action for starting a Harley as like kicking back, though it’s more like stomping down. In truth, given the way this word wheels, and how it’s powered by a heel, it’s almost more of a bicycle. Sure doesn’t sound like one, though… unless something’s stuck in the spokes. But you can take your bicycle (once it’s rolling smoothly) and go see a step-dance performance, and as you kick back and watch and listen, you can think about all those heels stomping the calx.

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting this word, in response to a tweet by Swift on Security.

2 responses to “recalcitrant

  1. There was a diplomatic row between Australia and Malaysia in 1993 when Prime Minister Keating referred to Prime Minister Mahathir as a recalcitrant for not attending an APEC summit meeting in Seattle. I presume that there was a lot of scrambling to consult dictionaries.

  2. Definitely a word for the hoof going down! And one I use – you usually get me with a word I have to learn. And I do so enjoy learning the word sources and parts!

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