We usually like it when things are clear, when the sun shines through, when we understand the sense without a shadow of a doubt. But language is not always like that. Sometimes it’s outrageous. And sometimes it’s just… umbrageous. Shadowy, doubtful.
The word umbrageous may look like a less certain sibling of outrageous: you see the rage in the middle but instead of being right out it’s just, um, umb. But the rage is an illusion: outrage is taken from French and formed from outre (you may know outré, naming something that is just too extra), which comes from Latin ultra, ‘beyond’. Likewise umbrageous comes from umbrage, which comes from umbra, ‘shadow’. Yes, when you take umbrage at something, you perceive that you are having shade cast on you – and you can also give umbrage, meaning cast shade on someone, figuratively (or literally).
OK, but which is it? Is it umbrageous to cast shade, or to take shade (umbrage)?
This word has (you knew it was coming) shades of meaning, and meanings of shade. A large tree with broad branches and many leaves is umbrageous: it casts much shadow. And the area underneath it – like the plants that prefer to grow there – is umbrageous: it is in shadow; it takes shadow.
Likewise, if I throw shade on someone – if, for instance, I say of a chef “His restaurant has excellent butter, and the water is nice and cool,” or if I say of a singer “Her recital was a wonderful expedition in search of the lost key” – I am being umbrageous, and if on the other hand someone is inclined to take offense at something I say – such as the time in my lunkish youth I said of a fellow actor’s shirt, “Oh, Le Chateau, that must have cost a lot,” and he replied “Why are you such an aaarsehole” – they are being umbrageous. (And this latter sense is, I should say, the more common.)
Well, sometimes you cast the shadow, and sometimes the shadow is cast on you. Either way, it is – you are – umbrageous. It may seem odd to conflate the cause of shade with its recipient, but remember that the underside of a tree is also in the shade, and that when, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of “The umbrageous loveliness of the surrounding country,” it covered both aspects of the matter.
Of course, people who take umbrage often create their own shade, and so in a way of seeing it are umbrageous in both senses as well – as one L. Hansen wrote in 1802 (thanks to the OED for this, and note the variant spelling), “Most punctilious with respect to forms and Ceremonies: and excessively ombrageous, with regard to the Non-observance of trivial points.”
I am reminded of the word nauseous: on the one hand, it is normally used to mean ‘feeling nausea; queasy; nauseated’; on the other hand, there are people who will inform you crisply that it can only mean ‘causing nausea’, and will imply that you are an illiterate barbarian for using it the way it is nearly always used. Those people, you see, are also umbrageous – in both senses: they take umbrage at the usual usage, and they throw shade at those who use it.
What a beauty! Authors like you make the Lockdown that much more delicious. Now that we are at it, may I request you for a lowdown on lockdown?
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