How would you describe a state of consternation? Is it when something just… throws you? Perhaps you’re even flattened by it? Or is that too strong?

I’m actually curious, because for me, a state of consternation is one where you’re, you know, concerned, but with more syllables. It’s like if you see an open flame near a table edge that might get knocked over and ignite something. It’s furrowed brows. Maybe pinching the bridge of your nose. Could be the sort of thing that makes you sneeze.

But no, I guess that would be consternutation (from Latin sternutatio, ‘sneezing’). According to the dictionaries I’ve checked, consternation is more than furrowed brows. It’s more than saying “Consarn it!” or other stern words. It’s like if the open flame has been knocked over and lit the drapes on fire and it’s spreading across the ceiling. It’s “amazement or dismay that hinders or throws into confusion” (Merriam-Webster), or “amazement or horror that confounds the faculties, and incapacitates for reflection; terror, combined with amazement” (Wiktionary), or “amazement and terror such as to prostrate one’s faculties” (Oxford English Dictionary). Or, per the OED or Wiktionary, “dismay.”

Well, yeah, dismay. I can get into that. But that’s maybe a different level than the whole incapacitation and prostration thing, no?

Well, now I’m in a state of consternation (the mild kind) over having thought of this word as meaning something that I experience on a more or less daily basis (what can I say? I’m easily piqued), as opposed to something that might damn well hospitalize me. But it’s clear that historically it did have that sense. Consider this line from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Such was the public consternation, when the barbarians were hourly expected at the gates of Rome.” I’m sure they weren’t just walking around staring at the pavement and mumbling “Oh, no, that’s not good, that’s just not done.” And yet that’s the sense I’ve always been used to it in. Maybe up to the level of someone writing a letter to the manager, y’know?

But if anyone’s going to know what the Original Generation version of consternation is, it’s the Romans. It’s taken from their word, after all. The Latin verb consternare, ‘affright, dismay’, traces to sterno, ‘I knock down, I flatten out, I stretch out, I spread, I scatter, I strew’. In fact, sterno is related, way back, to English strew. So if consternation leaves you feeling scattered or thrown for a loop, that’s entirely apposite.

I should say that sterno is not related to Sterno, the brand of canned jellied alcohol that is used for open flames in certain cooking applications. That brand name comes from the name of the company founder, Sternau. But I do think consternation can be related to Sterno… it’s just a question of whether the Sterno is near the table edge, or whether it’s already been knocked off and ignited the drapes. Can I spark some debate on this?

One response to “consternation

  1. I, too, thought it meant a good deal less than the bad hand it sounds like.
    As I’m sure did (and do) many others. Perhaps the dictionaries are behind the curve of change?
    Worrying – or something.

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