I have to admit, my word tastings have been somewhat desultory lately.

In truth, they’ve always been desultory, topic-wise – and in fact the largest exception is the two months I lately spent covering one topic (words for ‘butterfly’ around the world). But that’s a horse of a different colour. What I mean is that in recent times the frequency has been a bit uneven, just jumping around the calendar. This is the result of a couple of things: on the one hand, I realized I was writing more than most people would get around to reading, so I reduced my frequency to increase my value; on the other, I travelled unusually often in the past year – sometimes to where it’s more sultry but less suitable for literary pursuits. So it has involved a bit of horsing around, but – rest easy – no physical insults.

Which is a bit different from the original desultors, who were making literal leaps while engaging in extravagant horseplay.

Desultory, you see, means ‘jumping around’ (and extended senses such as ‘irregular’ and ‘haphazard’), and that’s close to what the Latin roots mean – de- meaning ‘from’ or ‘down’ and sult- from salire ‘leap’ (the etymon that also gives us result, insult, exult, and salient). But it didn’t start in the obvious figurative sense of leaping around a document or schedule or a train of thought. No, it started in the circus.

Yes, that circus. The Roman one, where there were chariot races and gladiatorial pursuits and assorted things involving beasts tame and wild. The desultors were not assaulters, don’t worry; they were equestrians who leaped from galloping horse to galloping horse. Similar stunts are still to be observed from time to time at rodeos and modern circuses and – more often involving motor vehicles – carnivals.

It gives a bit of a different vibe to desultory coverage of a topic or schedule, though, doesn’t it? All of a sudden we realize we are not hopping around on a still surface; we are leaping from one train of thought to another, and if it’s hard to maintain a consistent schedule, it may after all be that your many conflicting commitments are wild horses carrying you in different directions (and if you’re tied to several of them, it’s a literal distraction). Life doesn’t stop, and we’re riding it as best we can, but how can we keep from being jumpy now and then?

Speaking of things that make us jumpy, there’s the little matter of pronunciation, which with this word is particularly stressful. But where in particular does the full stress go? The available pronunciations are, well, desultory. If you ask the Oxford English Dictionary, the stress must go on the first syllable, but the third syllable must not have a secondary stress – you are to say it “dessultery,” in that tumbling-downward way in which British English often handles Latinate polysyllabics. But if you ask Merriam-Webster, you can put the stress on the first or the second syllable, and you can pronounce the s in sul as “s” or “z”; if you put the stress on the second syllable, the tor can be reduced so it sounds like “de sultry,” but if you put the stress on the first syllable, the “tor” gets full value: “dessel tory.” 

So which way should you say it? Hmm, why not do what I do: don’t be a one-trick pony; go with whichever takes your fancy, changing choices from one context to the next. It only seems apt, after all.

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