When you feel you’re slipping into sub-sanity at the basic buffoonery, unsubstantiated transubstantiation of pumpkins into pantocrators (apocolocyntosis), and far too much of the tail wagging the dog, sometimes the only riposte is to be waggish: to deride the pale rider, to dump Humpty, to subsannate the saboteurs.

I promise you I am not taking the piss (so to speak): I have not made this word up. But you won’t find it often in modern texts; it has slipped into desuetude. Which is a pity, because we still have use for it – or at least for the act it names. But come, follow me as I trace this carbuncle up from the mines of ancient time.

In Ancient Greek, there was a word σαίνειν sainein, meaning ‘wag the tail’ or, figuratively, ‘fawn [over someone]’. Be a happy puppy for a person, in other words. We don’t really know where this word came from, but I’m sure it was nice, wherever it was.

Anyway, σαίνειν was adapted into the noun σάννας sannas, which meant ‘clown’ or ‘buffoon’ (I guess they quickly smoked out the sycophants). That noun in turn got grabbed into Latin as sanna to mean ‘mocking grimace’ – the sort of thing I usually call ‘a sneer’, though I suppose they may have done it differently at the time; different cultures have different mocking faces.

That Latin noun then, with the addition of sub (‘under’), got converted to the verb subsannare, ‘sneer, mock, deride’. And from that came a whole set of English words: not just subsannate but subsannation, subsannator, and – in at least one text – a more lace-at-the-throat version of the verb: subsanne.

And, yes, subsannate means ‘mock, deride’ – in particular with an implication of a mean face: as Thomas Blount’s 1656 dictionary Glossographia puts it, “to scorn or mock with bending the Brows, or snuffing up the nose.”

Oh, with BeNdiNg tHe bRoWs or snUfFinG uP tHe NoSe. Huh. Funny way you have of expressing mockery, mister Blount. Well, you do you.

And to all the other Dumpty Pumpkins out there: I subsannate you too. And not just in your general direction, either.

5 responses to “subsannate

  1. Hi James, an excellent choice. I’ve been using Facebook much more frequently in the past months. I avoid rants, tribalism, or polarization of any sort, but did offer a way to make comment threads more interesting.
    “Here are a few useful older words, just to get started. Knave, varlet, coxcomb, rapscallion, scaramouch, fandangle, blackguard, and trumpery.”
    I couldn’t resist trumpery.

  2. Blount’s definition reminded me indirectly of the notice I took of the use of [scoffs] in TV closed captioning. I had never thought of the word as a specific verbal gesture, or a specific sound.

  3. Patricia Birchard

    That was fantastic!
    May have to read it again!
    May have to memorize the rhetoric before I confront the automobile repair blokes.I will certainly be armed with risibility if nothing else!

  4. Reading the Latin Vulgate Bible’s text for Psalm 2, one comes across this: ” et Dominus subsannabit eos.”, meaning “… and the Lord will mock them”.

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